Interestingly, many medical school applicants unknowingly will follow a common “formula” for their personal statement. This article describes each part of that formula in depth. Learn about the formula for a good personal statement…and why you should avoid it.
In 5 Parts of a Competitive Medical School Application, we discussed the importance of the personal statement as a way to weave extracurricular activities into a coherent story. The personal statement provides flexibility to fill in the gaps of your medical school application. It’s a space to expand upon extracurricular activities. Most of all, it’s a chance to emphasize passion and provide a personal touch to the application. Those 5300 characters will be the most unique section of the application, and deserves weeks, if not months, of preparing and brainstorming, writing and editing.
In the past few month, I have had the opportunity to read and critique a couple dozen medical school personal statements. Some had me on the edge of my seat, others were unremarkable at best, and a majority of them, to be blunt, sounded the same. I began to notice that many applicants follow a common blueprint for their personal statement, which can be described as the “past, present, and future” formula:
The Past – “The How”
The essay typically starts with a brief, poignant story from the past, often about an encounter with the medical world that inspired an initial interest in healthcare. A grandparent’s passing, an encounter with a physician, a childhood sickness…the list goes on. Whatever the event, it’s a personal account that intends to draw the reader in with imagery and emotion. Oftentimes, it is a tragic event with lessons learned – a dark gray storm cloud with a silver lining. It demonstrates overcoming hardship and keeping an open mind. This first paragraph sets up the stage for the rest of the essay with an initial “This is how I first got interested in medicine”.
The Present – “The What”
The essay then shifts over to the present: “This is what I have done to further explore medicine”. This is the largest portion of the essay and further elaborates upon extracurricular activities during college and time off. Shadowing experiences, research projects, patient interactions, trips abroad, and community service work – with each experience claiming a few lines in the essay. Some essays get too caught up in describing the actual activities and responsibilities, making the personal statement sound more like a newspaper ad than a personal story. This is an easy way to lose a reader’s interest. Keep the extracurricular activity descriptions in the Work/Activities section, the personal statement is for what you learned and gained from each.
Future – “The Why”
After going in depth on all the key experiences from college and beyond, the essay will usually close with some statement about the future: “With my past experiences and present involvements, I want to go to medical school because…” Complete the sentence with whatever you deem fitting, whether it be I want to help people, I want to care for others, I enjoy the excitement, I work well under pressure, I am fascinated by science, etc. This is the why of the essay, and ties everything together.
Now, as the title says, the “past, present, and future” formula is the way to a good personal statement. The emphasis here is on “good”. Not great! Just “good”. Let me explain. An essay that follows the formula above will produce a personal statement that is coherent and informative. It will provide a voice and a tone to complement your grades and MCAT, producing some words for your numbers, if you will. HOWEVER, members of the admissions committee read through dozens if not hundreds of essays, hoping that one will catch their interest. If they all follow the same formula, they all begin to sound the same. This is why I actually recommend avoiding this formula.
At this point, some of you will ask “then what should I do instead?” and unfortunately, I don’t have a great answer for you. You can start with Medical School Personal Statement Tips or any of our other articles about the personal statement. The bottom line is that the personal statement should be unique to you and your experiences. It should be memorable, insightful, and genuine. It should be personal, and it should make a statement. It shouldn’t be just “good”
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ProspectiveDoctor.
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