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Tips for Writing a Unique and Compelling Personal Statement

Talking about Yourself Shouldn't Have to Be Hard

As the new application season is fast approaching, it is crunch time for applicants to finalize their personal statements. When I was writing my personal statement, I found it incredibly hard to not give into simply listing my most impressive accomplishments. I was also wary to avoid the clichés that pre-meds tend to resort to in their essays (e.g. “I want to help people” and “I love the intersection of science and clinical care”).

Through a lengthy process of writing multiple drafts and starting over when they didn’t “feel” right, I’ve garnered a few practical tips that I would like to share with those of you in the personal statement grind.

Write a story that only YOU could write.

I know you’ve heard this one before, but it’s essential that you distinguish yourself from every other applicant. It can be tempting to argue in your essay why you are more “qualified” than other candidates (falling into the trap of listing your resumé), but that really isn’t the point of your personal statement. Your personal statement should tell an authentic story of YOU and your path to wanting to become a physician. Adcom members are very good at sniffing out hollow and disingenuous essays, so be sure to tell the authentic story of how you came to love medicine. A good way of doing this is by honestly asking yourself if your essay could easily be written by another candidate. If the answer is yes, then you might want to start over.

Pick and stick with a central theme for your essay.

Although it is important to tell a cohesive and sincere story in your essay, it is equally important to be consistent in your reason for wanting to be a physician. To do this, you should establish a central theme that can be easily understood by the reader. This theme should have some element of emotional impact. For example, your theme could be addressing the cultural barriers to healthcare. This should then be supported by key experiences in your life (see next point).

Share three to four pivotal experiences that have shaped and solidified your interest in medicine.

To go along with your central theme, you should support your reason for wanting to become a physician by describing a few relevant key experiences in your life. When sharing these experiences, you should be as concise as possible with the facts of what you did and instead focus on what you learned and your personal growth as a result of these experiences. I would suggest retelling these experiences chronologically and transitioning between each. These experiences don’t necessarily need to be your most impressive accomplishments (e.g. getting published), but they should be the most emotionally significant and relevant to your theme (e.g. a signficant patient encounter during shadowing).

Have an eye-catching hook!

In Malcom Gladwell’s book, “Blink,” he presented research that proves the power of the adaptive unconscious, or our innate ability to use limited information to come to a conclusion. He explains how we use “thin-slicing” in our everyday lives by making snap judgements with little information. Adcom members who read thousands of essays every year, undoubtedly come to quick conclusions about candidates when reading their essays. This is why having an eye-catching hook is of utmost importance, perhaps more important that the actual content of your essay. Stay away from being overly dramatic (e.g. “The patient breathed her last breaths before my eyes.”) and instead make it relatable and unique. For example, I wrote about drinking Chinese herbal soups as my hook and one of my interviewers couldn’t stop talking about it!

I hope these tips are helpful as you finalize your essay. Don’t be afraid to start over when you have a gut feeling that your essay isn’t quite right. It took me a couple drafts to get the right feel. And remember that your personal statement is NOT the biggest determiner in your chances of getting admitted. Your scores and stats come first, then your essay will only get your foot through the door. As long as your essay isn’t too bland and is sufficiently compelling, you will definitely land an interview (assuming you made it through the first cut).

Good luck!

Ariel Lee

Ariel Lee is a graduate of Brandeis University in the class of 2018 with a B.S. in Biology and Anthropology. She is medical student in the class of 2023. Her areas of interest include: geriatrics, end-of-life care, and the intersection of spirituality and medicine. In addition to writing for Prospective Doctor, she runs a blog at lightandsalt.org, where she writes on her journey in the Christian faith and other personal reflections.

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