Typical medical school personal statements list qualities and accomplishments in paragraph form and can be boring to read for admissions committee members. The best personal statements demonstrate qualities through engaging stories. Those stories reveal insights into the applicant’s personality, as well as interests outside healthcare and medicine.
Medical school admissions committees want to learn who you uniquely are and why you want to become a medical professional. They also want to know what you are going to contribute to their school and the larger medical field.
Use this in-depth guide to explore unique personal topics and stories that will capture admission committee members’ attention and help you stand out in a sea of ordinary med school personal statements.
The first step in the personal statement writing process is to decide what stories and facts are most important to reveal and how to weave in your motivation for applying to a school of medicine.
When you’re ready to brainstorm, don’t just sit down to stare at a list of your premed activities like research experiences, volunteering, or shadowing. Instead, start compiling the fundamental personal experiences and people that helped shape you.
When brainstorming your personal statement for medical school, consider these topics:
Significant or formative life experiences: something that changed the course of your life, your outlook on the world, or made you think differently about your future
- Learning to do something that lead you to excel/teach others/make a contribution (e.g., sports, science, foreign language, special skills)
- Being given a second chance
- Connecting with someone who made an impact on you
- Being out of your comfort zone (experiences with people of different backgrounds, travel, moving, doing something for the first time)
Challenging life experiences: something that forced a lesson upon you
- A mistake you made
- An event that was out of your control that nonetheless caused you suffering or loss
- Overcoming an obstacle
People that shaped your life:
- Mentor, family member, friend
- Author, actor, speaker, personal hero
Think about what each element on your list taught you or how it changed your thinking. Answer for yourself why the event or person is important. Then brainstorm how one or two medically related activities can be tied in.
With this strategy, your personal statement will develop around a narrative that is unique to you. It will also communicate to admissions officers who you are and why you want to provide medical care.
To further your thought processes, ask yourself these questions:
- What is distinct or unique about you/your life story?
- What are some specific details about your personality, values, or experiences you can share to help them get a better understanding of who you are?
- In what ways have your experiences contributed to your growth?
- Have you overcome any obstacles or difficult circumstances in your life?
- What valuable personal characteristics (integrity, compassion, diligence, etc.) do you have?
- What soft skills (leadership, teamwork, communication skills, etc.) do you have?
Next, connect those answers to medicine-specific questions:
- How and when did you become interested in medicine?
- What have you learned so far about medicine?
- Why do you want to become a doctor?
- How do you know you want to be a doctor?
- How have your experiences and your understanding of yourself confirmed your desire to do medicine?
- In what ways have you shown that you have the characteristics necessary to succeed in the field of medicine?
- How will your skills translate into being a good doctor?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that need explaining? This can be an obstacle or difficult circumstance.
Though you don’t want to include the answers to all these questions in your personal statement, knowing the answers to these questions is a good starting point.
You should highlight a few unique experiences, skills, or personal characteristics and make those the focal point of your essay.
Choose Stories that Show Your Character
Ordinary personal statements focus on the experiences that applicants think will make them seem impressive. The best personal statements focus on the qualities that make applicants truly special.
Instead of choosing their standout qualities — character, personality traits, attitudes — most applicants simply choose experiences they think will help them stand out to admissions committees. Then they try to force those qualities into the experiences they’ve already chosen.
Why is this an issue? Imagine you have participated in the following extracurricular activities:
- Biochemistry research for 2 years
- Clinical experience shadowing for 3 years
- Math tutor for under served youth for 2 years
- Trombonist in the high school band and trombone instructor for 3 years
- International medical mission trip volunteer for 3 summers
- Premed organization member for 3 years (vice president for 1 year)
At face value, which of these experiences do you think would make you seem the most impressive to an admissions committee? Given these choices, most students would choose to write about clinical shadowing (2) or medical mission trips (5). And most students who choose one of those two topics will take a very similar approach, such as starting off the essay describing some interaction with a very ill patient or one with whom they experienced a language barrier.
Typical Applicant Example:
“Mary was well known at our clinic by all of our doctors, nurses, and medical staff. Based on her sharp intellect and cheerful pattern of making our staff feel like we were her best friends, it would be difficult to tell why she frequently visited the hospital. Besides her use of a walker, her Parkinson’s disease diagnosis had not slowed her down much.
Throughout my interactions with Mary, I wondered how she maintained such a positive attitude despite her ailments. She seemed to give our staff more joy with her beaming smile than receiving care. I wanted to give her the best care possible, whether through asking our great nurses to check in on her or offering an extra blanket or favorite snack to ensure comfort throughout her stay.
However, I was simultaneously frustrated that my ability to help Mary ended there. This lingering lack of fulfillment has served as a great motivator to find ways to do more for patients like her.”
Although the above example provides some insights about the applicant’s motivations (“…find ways to do more for patients…”), it is written about a common topic (a realization that came during clinical shadowing) with a typical delivery — written broadly about interactions with a particular patient.
The best personal statement writers, on the other hand, first think of the personal qualities they want to demonstrate in their essay before choosing a situation or event to write about. Next, they think of an experience that best highlights these qualities, regardless of whether or not it seems most “impressive” at face value. Finally, the best personal statements zero in on a particular event or situation to capture the reader’s attention with a detailed personal story.
By taking this approach, the best personal statement writers are better able to demonstrate their qualities because their story was chosen expressly for that purpose. After all, schools are attracted to particular candidates because of their qualities and not a specific experience they’ve had.
Let’s suppose this same applicant wanted to highlight her community involvement and commitment to serving underprivileged groups. Returning to the list of extracurriculars above, she could choose to write about working as a math tutor (3) or being a trombonist in the school band and trombone instructor (4). By choosing the latter and zooming in on a particular event, this same student could write the following personal statement introduction:
“My palms had never been as sweaty as when I walked on stage with my trombone in front of a 500-plus member audience on June 9th, 2015. Sure, I was pretty good. But I would like to think that being invited to play Curtis Fuller’s “Along Came Betty” at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame had as much to do with the music skills I had honed over the past decade as it did with training the 8-member band of 10 to 13 year-olds from the inner city to join me on that same stage. I was nervous because this performance was for them; I needed to be at my best.”
This introduction would likely stand out because it is about an uncommon topic (a musical performance) and seamlessly demonstrates the writer’s community involvement, especially with underserved youth. As a bonus, it captures the reader’s attention in 382 fewer characters.
Typical personal statements could have been written by any applicant. Good personal statements are those that could only be written by a specific applicant. The example of a typical introduction could have been written by any number of medical students who volunteered in a hospital. There simply aren’t enough unique insights and details about the applicant. On the other hand, the second introduction could have only been written by that individual.
So how do you avoid a dull introductory paragraph? Use the approach above — first listing your unique qualities, then identify situations where you’ve expressed those qualities, finally zoom in to tell a detailed story.
Show, Don’t Tell
You’ve likely heard the adage “Show, don’t tell” enough already. Rarely do we receive practical advice on exactly how to demonstrate our qualities, rather than list them. When you can do this, you provide a more authentic glimpse of who you really are.
If you read the following sentences from two different applicants, which one would you think was more giving?
Applicant #1: I am a very giving person.
Applicant #2: I volunteer 4 hours every week to work at the homeless shelter.
You’d probably chose applicant #2, even though they never used the word “giving” in their sentence. As a reader, we extrapolate how giving that applicant is.
Going back to the intro paragraphs above, we can see that the typical one “tells” about the applicant’s qualities, whereas the better paragraph “shows” the applicant’s qualities.
More Medical School Personal Statement Examples:
- “I wanted to give the best patient care possible…” (giving)
- “This lingering lack of fulfillment has served as a great motivator to find ways to do more” (motivated)
- “…the music skills I honed over the past decade…” (dedicated)
- “…training the 8-member band of 10-13 year-olds from the inner city to join me on that same stage.” (giving, empowering)
- “I was nervous because this performance was for them; I needed to be at my best.” (selfless, motivated)
Strive to let your accomplishments, approaches, and insights speak for themselves. Describe your work in an engaging way and let the reader do the complimenting for you.
Stay on Topic
Some applicants make the mistake of putting the focus on supporting characters, like a parent or patient, making them more compelling than themselves or sharing the limelight. But the best personal statements maintain the focus on the applicant.
Like any great story, your personal statement should highlight a compelling character. But that character, the star of your story, should always be YOU. There is nothing wrong with including another character in your personal statement’s story. But other characters should only be used to demonstrate your qualities, whether through an interaction you had or an insight you gained after.
Returning to our examples above:
In the typical paragraph, Mary and the applicant are co-leads in the story. We don’t even read about the applicant or her insights until the fourth sentence. Mary seems just as impressive as the applicant.
The better paragraph is all about the applicant — her concerns, dedication, and motivations. Even though she mentions the inner-city youth, they serve only to demonstrate the applicant’s qualities.
Your opportunity to impress med school admissions committees with your personal statement is limited to 5,300 characters. Strive to keep the focus nearly entirely on you.
Know ahead of time that your first draft is just that — a first draft. Once you get something on the page, you can start rewriting and revising it into the perfect statement.
Common Medical School Personal Statement Mistakes
Explaining the answer to “Why I want to be a doctor” can be overwhelming. Many applicants end up making the mistake of answering a different question: “What have I done that qualifies me for medical school?” The result is a tedious list of GPAs and MCAT scores that make personal statements read like a resume.
A better approach is not to focus on the question that your essay will answer, but on the personal aspects of your experiences on earth that shaped who you are — a person whose goals and values align with entering the medical profession.
More common mistakes to avoid:
- Not being concise
- Using clichés
- Breaking character limits
- Not using transitions between paragraphs and topics
- Not getting a second opinion or consulting an expert
There are some red flags to keep in mind as well. Admissions experts will not be impressed with:
- Arrogance or narcissism
- Self-deprecation or lack of confidence
- Unexplained gaps in education
- Poor grammar
- Lack of passion
What is the AMCAS personal statement prompt? The AMCAS personal statement prompt is: Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.
How many characters are allowed in the medical school personal statement? The characters allowed in the medical school personal statement for the AMCAS application is 5,300 characters. Spaces count as characters, equaling roughly 500 words. The AACOMAS is similar in length and character limit.
How long should a personal statement be for medical school? A personal statement for medical school should be approximately one page.
What personal statement topics should I avoid? There are no specific topics that you should completely avoid in your personal statement. You may receive advice to steer clear of topics like mental health, having a parent that’s a doctor, or volunteer work. But it’s not these topics themselves that are a problem; how you use these stories and experiences to show your personality and character are what matter.
Get an Expert’s Opinion
When you’re ready to consult with experts regarding your medical school personal statement, prep for your medical school interview, or any other part of your med school application or re-application, contact us. MedSchoolCoach and ProspectiveDoctor can provide step-by-step help with your entire application.