Applying to Medical School

The Art of Authoring Creative (But Not Weird) Personal Statements

To make the most of your medical school personal statement, be memorable. Take a page from the Do It Yourself Medical School Admissions Essay – the DIYRXDOC.

To Start: What is a Medical School Personal Statement?

The Personal Statement (i.e., AMCAS Section 8, “Personal Comments”) is the recommended place for medical school applicants to distinguish themselves or justify a personal setback. All pre-meds should plan and draft this document strategically, as this can make or break your medical school application.

In your personal statement, it’s not enough to simply state the desirable first year medical student qualities you’re expecting to show and illustrate in writing. You must be memorable.

Make the Busy Reader’s Mind Wander Back to You

The most harried admissions readers simply wish to determine if you are an ideal fit. Make it easy for them: close the distance between who you are and where the medical school is headed.

Pro tip: Google the dean’s welcome message or the program’s strategic plan to gather information about the school’s immediate needs and goals. These may fall into areas like research or community.

Write about “who you are” and “what else the medical school should know about you” as contributions you are ready or willing to make (that match how the medical school is evolving). When your candidacy and the school appear aligned in common purpose, you have proposed your relevance in clear and objective terms.

The human brain is tuned by logic and imagination. When reading, the brain creates meaning by making up stuff to fill in the gaps. This is why “show, don’t tell” is still an evergreen narrative strategy for writing the medical school admissions essay. No need to stop there. While the competition dumps visual data into their personal statement, make reading your essay a multi-sensory experience with the title of a song.

Certain songs enjoy legacy (played at every wedding or Karaoke) or have built-in associations (Peter Cetera :: The Karate Kid). When you namecheck one of these songs in the anecdote of your personal statement, the music and its message generates mood or theme in yours. As your reader “hears” the song in their mind, certain sounds evoke feelings or connotations (brass instruments >> homecoming, military or ceremony). Be as deliberate about your choice of verbs. Diction is a palette that creates temperature and establishes tone.

Inject Your Personal Statement with Humor

Try to manifest psychological context if entertainment is the writing purpose of your personal statement. Like stand-up comedy, the funny personal statement is difficult to render when you don’t know who your audience will be. Humor is interactive and contextual. Interactive is mostly out of range for the written essay. But there are workarounds.

Divulge a dinky but clever hack you stumbled onto, such as the quasi-universal Sutured Pants Hem With Office Supplies. Be detailed about what you engineered, what it fixed, and how this mini-win offers a glimpse of your personality. The point is not a MacArthur nom but creating a moment where you become more than typed words identical to the typed words of all other pre-meds. Someone on an admissions committee, suffering through piles of typed words, will be elated to learn you really can grill a slider on a lightbulb powered by a stationary bicycle. Novelty from real life is a proxy for personal distinction. If you go this route, keep your reader locked in on your individuality by mismatching your invention and the dominant learning style most readily inferable from other sections of your application, e.g. fantastical mnemonics x high-ability kinesthetic.

Pro tip: One way to be unexpected in your personal statement, yet within the bounds of good sense, is hone in on a time something you tried did not go well.

Perhaps you flunked, but retook a class or joined a club way outside of your comfort zone for a semester. Lucky for you, the “epic fail” generates great, true content if you spin it with care, so do more than “tell” the admissions committee about it. Make like a sports writer and commentate your attempt or do-over for that portion of your personal statement. Analogize the experience to a championship, a narrative method which may require some extra effort on your part. (If you are not an athlete or sports fanatic, run your draft by someone who is. They can help you nail the word choices and syntax of the genre). In the end you’ll exceed the hackneyed summations of old – “what I learned” and “what this taught me” or “now I know.” Sports writing personal failure is an exercise in humility that engages because it’s true and entertains because it mixes rhetorical registers.

Be Who You Are, Where You Are

Try this strategy if you do not reside in the same city as the medical school you’re applying to especially if these places have infrastructural differences.

Pro tip: Somewhere in your personal statement, devote a paragraph to your personal experience with a public health situation unique to your hometown or county.

For example, there are cities in the United States with toxic tap water. Although national media attention has increased public awareness not everyone knows about a water problem first hand. When you have had close personal witness to or survival of a public health scare distinct to a location you know very well, tell it. Geography disaggregates into demography that you may be uniquely and premedically situated to represent.

In my book, I write about NASCAR because where I grew up I knew people who were really into car racing. But in most social situations I’ve not found cause to introduce myself as a fan because when I do, it’s like a curveball: no one looking at me sees it coming. But making small talk and writing in a way that stands out from the competition are two entirely different rhetorical contexts. Your medical school admissions essay is a perfect opportunity to showcase an avocation unusual for someone of your assumed identity group. Depending on where you are, it may be atypical to be an award winning chef who is legally blind or a man who wrestles, hunts and knits beautiful sweaters. Work to your advantage the lazy stereotypes hardwired into a society of snap judgement by standing your secondary talent out in front of what’s expected in your city or town.

If travel or culture are topics you’d welcome during your medical school interview, bilingual dialogue is the creative technique for you. This catchy way to enliven the pace of the personal statement is for applicants fluent in two or more languages. First, be sure you are narrating and that dialogue fits neatly into your anecdote. Next, locate any universal exchange (greetings, commercial transactions) from which meaning can be inferred by context. Then, swap out the English phrase for the translated equivalent that’s true to the location of your story. When you tell a story using bilingual dialogue anyone can understand, you accomplish two things: demonstrating a skill (advanced communication) and illustrating personal interaction. (This holds attention). Why state, “I speak Xhosa” when storytelling allows you to prove it?

Be Picky About Every Word in Your Personal Statement

Don’t go bonkers and stuff all these cheats into 5,300 characters. Choose a maneuver or two and build your personal statement around that. Revise until your story is not only typo-free but concise. And if ever you’d like a gentle read, tweet @AuntieEmDash. Good luck!!

Do It Yourself Medical School Admissions Essay is the fresh go-to for help creating personal statements that win and wow with integrity and persuasive storytelling. Expanded from a free manual and blog posts on Medium, the book is still concise enough to absorb in one sitting. For a limited time, Pre-Med and Pre-Health advisers read free and have their blurb featured on the back cover.

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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