By Evan Laveman
Tragedies can be a very difficult subject to write about, give advice about, and to deal with in general since every one of them is different, and everyone who goes through them is different. This article is not meant to be a didactic on grieving or coping with misfortune, but rather a discussion on how personal tragedy fits into a medical school application. In a premedical group that I coordinated, I had to read through about 500 short personal statements for premedical applicants looking to join our group. A large portion of these personal statements were written about personal encounters with death, difficulties, and disabilities, and after going through so many essays about personal losses, I’m hoping to provide some insight to those of you who may elect to integrate a similar experience into your application. Along with my personal insights, I have also discussed the topic with doctors that have sat on admissions committees at different schools, and will only provide my thoughts that have overlapped with their sentiments as well.
There are few things more personal than the death of a loved one, or a tragic event, and these can serve as a strong motivation for a personal statement. When applying for a field that is constantly in tension with mortality and suffering, experiences in death can seem to be a powerful qualifier within a medical application, but must be approached with caution. The following list is some of the major points you should consider when integrating a personal difficulty or loss into your statements.
1. Are you focusing on the how, and not the what?
If you’re going to write about an emotional issue, such as death, it is sometimes easy to lose yourself in the description of the experience. Sometimes a few sentences just doesn’t seem to do the experience justice, so we expand, and expand, until the emotional setup for our statement has taken up half of the character count. The majority of the personal statement should be the extrapolation, not the exposition. I’m not trying to sound calloused, but someone reading your statement does not need to know every single detail, even if these details truly do the experience justice. An admissions committee cares about you, and that’s who they want to hear about throughout your statements. Focus less on what the event was, and more on your own relevant relationship with it- how it motivated, captivated, or taught you. It is best to think about the message you are trying to send with the story first, this can help you make sure that your anecdotes remain centered around a primary objective.
2. Why does this event qualify you for medical school?
Beyond the how, is the why. Why does the experience matter? A lot of applicants have gone through personal tragedies, so when reading so many of them, the emotional aspects do start to play a back seat in comparison to how this experience transformed you, and why it is relevant to your medical career. I’m not saying to envision hardened souls sifting through your statements and disregarding emotional artifacts, I’m saying those experiences become unusable to an admissions committee if you’re not focusing on why this experience is important for them to hear about. For example, you could have fallen off a horse when you were 5, broken your leg, and went through an ordeal with a lot of orthopedic surgeons which ultimately inspired you to become a doctor, but this experience does not provide any answer to ‘why?’. It’s easy to create empty blanket statements of being ‘inspired’ or ‘motivated’ by an experience, but you should look to ground it in some very real ways that an admissions committee can actually extrapolate some meaning from. What skills did you gain from it? How did it change your perspective? What are some examples of what you did with that new perspective, or those new skills? Why will this make you good medical student?
3. Is it taking the place of other more pertinent qualities?
An emotionally relevant story can be a great topic for statements, but make sure that if you’re going to use it, you have enough powerful personal correlations related to it. You can talk about what may qualify you to be a great doctor ad naseum, but don’t lose sight of the fact that right now you’re applying to be a medical student, not a doctor, that comes later. Remember that a successful medical student has to study proficiently, take exams, enjoy the material, connect well with others, constantly be innovative, and also be equipped to become a lifelong student and a lifelong teacher. Tapping into these qualities is important; as they are the actual bread and butter of getting through those 4 years, so make sure that by inserting anecdotes, you’re not displacing a discussion on why you would make a good medical student on a functional level.
4. Is it too emotional for you?
Sometimes events are just too emotional to write about, and are difficult to do so without sounding like you’re trying to gain pity, regardless of your original intention. Sometimes the line between professional application and personal writing therapy can become blurred, and it can make you appear emotionally distraught to the reader. As touching as that might be to an admissions reader that you’re confiding a very emotional experience to them, it still may not contain any of the content they’re looking for as far as your qualifications for medical school. If you’re looking to write about something that is still fresh, or still difficult for you, try talking about it to friends or family in order to refine your own perspective on the event. If you haven’t talked to friends or family about it, then you may want to make sure that you’re putting it in your statement for the right reasons; your personal statement is not the place to make confessions or relieve your own emotional burdens. You can also type up the experience in a word document, save it, come back to it in a few weeks, and see how it reads to you then. When we start divulging emotional pasts, sometimes the floodgates just open and the real message can get lost. After a few practice rounds you can refine how you want to write about in your statement, but the important thing to remember is that if it is something you’ve not come to terms with yourself, you don’t want to let the emotions hijack your application.
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