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The Medical School Personal Statement: Getting Started

How do I write something that explains who I am?

By  Andy Nguyen, M.D.

Every year many prospective medical students find themselves stumped by the AMCAS personal statement.

On one hand—it’s a Herculean task. Applicants are charged with distilling down their noblest motivations for dedicating their careers and lives to medicine. It’s also one of the final—if not the very last hurdle—that applicants have to jump before applying. The rest of the application is already set in stone, and the personal statement ties it all together.

On the other hand, applicants can also get discouraged. Doubts around how unique one’s personal statement can truly be or how much admissions committees really care can sap even the strongest applicants of motivation.

Here, we go over five tips that should help applicants get oriented and gain insight into the med school personal statement.

  1. Recognize that the personal statement matters. A poor personal statement can take an otherwise stellar applicant out of the running. And a great personal statement can set one applicant apart from another.

    The application process can feel like it skews heavily toward grades and exam scores—which are necessary, but insufficient to the practice of medicine. Medical schools know this. And use the personal statement to better understand the motivations, aspirations, and personal qualities that they (and you) believe make an excellent doctor.

  2. Decide on a strategy, and go with itThe essay prompt is, to the frustration of many, vague. Try to view this as an opportunity—you get to choose what you want admissions committees to know about you.

    There are many approaches to this: Some successful applicants use the space to describe the motivations and aspirations that tie their CV together. Others choose to draw attention to details that might otherwise be overlooked. And still others use it to describe the circumstances that contextualize their application.

    What I found most helpful was to take a 10,000 foot view of my AMCAS application and to ask myself—What were the threads I wanted to emphasize? For what experiences did I need to connect the dots that I couldn’t do elsewhere?

    Although there are many paths to choose, the key is to pick one, and go with it. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself trying to write multiple unfocused essays at once.

  3. Ask why?

    When applicants use the personal statement as a space to recant their CV, which happens not infrequently, it’s a real missed opportunity. Admissions committees already have the CV and use the essay to learn about the person underlying the CV. Here’s where you can shine for who you are—no two people are the same—rather than only what you’ve accomplished.

    For example, two undergrads might work in the same cancer genetics lab and be equally as productive and well-liked. However, one might’ve been drawn in by the intricate biology of cell division; whereas, the other is motivated by a personal experience with cancer in their family.

    These experiences help admissions committees understand the multiple dimensions that applicants bring into medicine—those whom they will teach, train, and have as future colleagues.

  4. Show, don’t tell.

    Although it can be considered a truism of good writing—examples and anecdotes paint pictures that “stick” better than direct statements. And this should be your approach for the personal statement.

    I find it helpful to think of what I want to convey first—maybe it’s that I love basic science research. Rather than stating this, I try to think of experiences that best capture this—like the feeling of holding a piece of data that took months to gather and that only you know.

  5. Choose what matters to you.

    Sometimes, applicants think they know what admissions committees want to hear or read. However, medical schools, admissions committees, and committee members vary broadly—it’s impossible to tailor your application to everyone’s tastes. And if you try, you miss the chance to showcase what really drives you.

    For example, if one feigned a passion for the underserved because he felt that it “sounded good,” it might not be resonant with his CV, letters of recommendations, or interview. This can be a red flag for admissions committees, which otherwise would have truly appreciated hearing about the applicant’s passion for epidemiology.

The personal statement can be daunting and frustrating. But at the same time, it’s an opportunity to reflect on why you’ve decided to go into medicine and to communicate the type of doctor you want to become. It’s also one of the few modifiable factors that you can control before applying—make the most of it!

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