The Medical School Admissions Dilemma
You’ve probably read the statistic that almost 60% of medical school applicants do not matriculate into medical school in any given year. As if you didn’t have enough anxiety about the whole process…
The worst part? It’s not the hard work–things worth doing are often hard. The worst part is knowing that there is a chance your application will be passed over for reasons beyond your control, such as too few spots in schools’ incoming classes.
However, I want to encourage you by emphasizing that there are many more things that you can control than things you can’t. As an applicant, these include: 1) choosing the schools to which you apply, 2) writing a standout personal statement, 3) describing the details of your extracurricular activities, 4) submitting great rec letters, 5) turning in thoughtful secondary essays as soon as possible without sacrificing quality, and 6) acing your interviews. Three of these (extracurriculars, rec letters, and the personal statement) were highlighted as part of Evan Shih’s 5 Parts of a Competitive Medical School Application.
As a pre-med student and med school applicant, you’re bombarded with information from forums and university premed organizations about everything, from the types and amount of extracurricular activities you should pursue to strategies for acing the MCAT to writing a great medical school personal statement.
The issue is that everyone else is also consuming the same information. Therefore, when it comes time to apply, you may feel like every other applicant has developed the same résumé as you have. You might even think to yourself, “How can I stand out if I’m no different than anyone else?”
There really is no secret about becoming a competitive medical school applicant. You need to achieve as high grades and MCAT scores as possible and accrue meaningful extracurricular activity hours throughout your premed years (University of Utah School of Medicine’s Admissions Criteria outlines this nicely).
There are, however, lesser-known but proven strategies to effectively sell yourself as an ideal med school candidate to admissions committees. I’m not talking about being sleazy or salesy. I’m talking about authentically casting yourself in the best light through all of your application’s written materials, including the dreaded personal statement.
Now, maybe I’m a personal statement nerd (no maybe… I am), but I believe there’s really no other part of your application that will help you stand out against other applicants—or look like everyone else.
The AMCAS personal statement prompt simply states, “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.” You decide entirely what admissions committees learn about you through your personal statement. Make it count—in your favor.
My Difficult Path to Becoming an Expert on Personal Statements
While driving home after seeing a friend one rainy evening in March 2004, my brother called to notify me that I had been rejected from UCLA. I cried during the entire 30-minute drive.
UCLA was my dream school for undergrad throughout childhood. My dad and brother had gone there, and I was ready to carry on the family tradition. And despite getting into other great schools like UC Berkeley, I was so upset because I felt that I had worked so hard the past 4 years of high school to get in.
I wanted to blame the system, but I didn’t.
Instead, I looked over my entire application and realized how cliché my essays were.
I decided that same evening to learn everything I could about writing great admissions essays because I was determined to get in. Rather than quit, I sent a highly engaging appeal essay to UCLA and got in—even though the appeal process had a less-than-1% success rate!
It’s still amazing to me that I was the same exact applicant (same test scores, extracurriculars, etc.) when I applied the first time and when I appealed. The only thing that changed was the way I presented myself.
Since then, I have used the same exact methods of self-presentation I learned as a high school senior to transfer and graduate from Cornell, get into the top-ranked Ph.D. program in my field, and accumulate $100K+ in scholarships to graduate debt-free.
But my favorite part of this story is that I have translated my expertise to help many medical school applicants get into medical school. My students’ joy after getting in is the primary reason I do what I do.
After all of your hard word as a pre-med student, I want to make sure you present yourself most effectively in your applications, too. As my story demonstrates, this can make all the difference between disappointment and getting into your dream school.
Unfortunately, we don’t learn how to present ourselves in an engaging way in school. The good news? I’ve distilled my knowledge to teach you how.
Hook the Admissions Committee
Imagine you’re an admissions committee member. You’ve gone through hundreds, maybe thousands, of personal statements over the years. You have to go through hundreds again this year, and you feel like you’ve read it all before: life-changing volunteer trips, major realizations during clinical shadowing, etc.
While the tips discussed below apply to the entire personal statement, the examples I provide focus on the introductory paragraph, which is your first and best opportunity to engage the reader. A boring introductory paragraph, on the other hand, is difficult to recover from.
Now, there is no “good” or “bad” personal statement topic. However, there are common and uncommon topics, as well as typical and standout delivery. You want your personal statement to be written so engagingly that it serves as a pleasant interruption to the admissions committee member’s routine. Surprise them when they rarely expect to be surprised.
Sound difficult? It’s not easy, but it’s certainly not impossible.
I could just copy and paste a bunch of great personal statement introductions here, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to take a different angle to show you four ways that the best personal statements differ from the typical ones.
Difference #1: Typical personal statements focus on the experiences that applicants think will make them seem most impressive. The best personal statements focus on the qualities that make applicants truly special.
Instead of choosing their standout qualities—character, personality traits, attitudes—first, most applicants simply choose experience(s) that will help them stand out to admissions committees. Then, they try to force those qualities into the experience(s) they’ve already chosen.
Why is this an issue? I’ll demonstrate. Imagine you have participated in the following extracurricular activities:
- Biochemistry research for 2 years
- Clinical shadowing for 3 years
- Math tutor for underserved youth for 2 years
- Trombonist in the 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 most impressive to an admissions committee? Given these choices, my research shows that most students would choose to write about clinical shadowing (2) or medical mission trips (5). Furthermore, I would imagine that 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.
An essay about clinical shadowing could start something like this:
“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 all of our staff feel like we were her best friends, it would be difficult to tell why she frequently visited the hospital. Outside of 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 more ways to do more for patients like her.”
Although the above example provides some insights about the applicant’s motivations (e.g., “…find more ways to do more for patients…”), it is written about a common topic (i.e., a realization that came during clinical shadowing) with a typical delivery (i.e., written broadly about interactions with a particular patient).
The best personal statement writers, on the other hand, first think of the 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 statement writers zero in on a particular event or situation to capture admissions committees’ attention with a detailed story.
By taking this approach, the best personal statement writers are better able to demonstrate their great qualities because their story was chosen expressly for that purpose. After all, schools are attracted to particular candidates because of their wonderful qualities rather than 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 to an admissions committee member because it is about an uncommon topic (i.e., a musical performance) and seamlessly demonstrates the writer’s community involvement, especially with underserved youth. As a bonus, it captures the reader with 404 fewer characters (out of the allotted 5,300).
Difference #2: Typical personal statements list qualities and accomplishments. The best personal statements demonstrate qualities through engaging stories.
Note: this section applies to all parts of your personal statement.
“Show, don’t tell.”
Whereas this advice is commonly given, examples are rarely provided to demonstrate how to demonstrate your qualities rather than simply listing them.
When qualities are demonstrated rather than listed, they provide a more authentic glimpse about the type of person you really are.
Think about it. 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 probably chose applicant #2, even though they never used the word “giving” in their sentence. Instead, as a reader, you extrapolated 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 standout paragraph “shows” the applicant’s qualities. The following are some examples to clarify:
“I wanted to give her the best care possible…” (giving)
“This lingering lack of fulfillment has served as a great motivator to find more ways to do more” (motivated)
“…the music skills I had 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)
When writing your personal statement, you should 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.
Difference #3: Typical personal statements put a lot of focus on other characters. The best personal statements maintain the focus on the applicant.
We’ve already touched upon how you should write your personal statement introduction as a story. And like any other great story, your personal statement should highlight a compelling character.
That character, the star of your story, should always be YOU.
I cannot overstate this point. I read a lot of personal statements where the applicant either makes another character (e.g., a parent or patient) more compelling than themselves or shares the limelight with another character.
There is nothing wrong with including another character in your personal statement’s story, as long as that character is being discussed to demonstrate your qualities, whether through an interaction you had with them or an insight you developed after interacting or observing them.
Let’s once again return to our intro paragraph examples to highlight this point.
In the typical paragraph, Mary and the applicant are co-leads in the story. In fact, we don’t even read about the applicant or their insights until the fourth sentence. Mary seems as impressive as the applicant.
On the other hand, the standout paragraph is all about the applicant—her concerns, dedications, and motivations. Even though she mentions the inner-city youth, they serve to demonstrate her own qualities.
Your opportunity to impress admissions committees in your personal statement is limited to 5,300 characters. Strive to keep the focus almost entirely on you.
Difference #4: Typical personal statements are those that could have been written by another applicant. The best personal statements are those that could have only been written by that particular applicant.
This key difference between typical and standout personal statements is my favorite.
Admissions committees want to learn who you uniquely are, why you want to pursue medicine, and what you are going to contribute to their school and to the larger medical community.
If your essay reads like it could have been written by another applicant, admissions committees will not have the pleasure of learning about you. That’s not good.
Therefore, any time you complete a draft of your personal statement—the introduction or the entire essay—I encourage you to ask yourself whether it could have been written by another applicant. If you answer “No,” the essay is on the right track. On the other hand, if the answer is “Yes,” significant changes are in order.
Our example of a typical introduction could have been written by any number of applicants who had volunteered in a hospital setting. There simply aren’t enough unique insights and details about the applicant included. On the other hand, the standout introduction could have only been written by that particular applicant.
If you discover that your introductory paragraph is not particularly unique, you have two options to make it so. The first option is going back to the same paragraph and introducing several specific details about yourself, whether about your physical appearance, town of origin, etc. In other words, help the reader visualize you better. The second option is to start over.
The good news is that if you take the approach of first listing your unique qualities, then identifying situations where you’ve expressed those qualities, and finally zooming in to tell a detailed story, you will likely avoid having to scrap anything.
Your personal statement is the way you will introduce yourself to admissions committees.
And like any other first impression, your personal statement will play a huge role in getting admissions committees to like you.
While there are many differences between typical vs. standout medical school personal statements, the four highlighted in this article are the most common and impactful on your overall application.
The personal statement offers a unique opportunity to share with admissions committees what values and qualities make you truly special. You’ve put in a ton of effort throughout college (and perhaps beyond) to develop a competitive résumé. Now it’s time to sell your unique self most effectively.
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is the Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. He helps medical school applicants get into their top-choice schools with as little stress as possible. You can receive his comprehensive ebook about the medical school application process, Get Into Medical School: 6 Practical Lessons to Stand Out and Earn Your White Coat