Writing your medical school personal statement: Tips and myths

“I have no idea what to write.”

“I want to stand out.”

“I want to be different.”

“I want to have a theme.”

These are all comments I hear from medical school applicants as they start thinking about what topics to include in their medical school personal statement. I find that applicants often feel pressured to be unique and to write something the medical school admissions officer has never read before. But if you follow a few basic guidelines, you will create a personal statement that is all yours and achieves the ultimate goal of telling your story. Remember, your personal statement should be personal!

In writing your personal statement you must answer a few fundamental questions:

1. What have you done that supports your interest in becoming a doctor?I always advise applicants to practice “evidence based admissions.” The reader of your essay wants to see the “evidence” that you have done what is necessary to understand the practice of medicine. This includes clinical exposure, research, and community service, among other activities.

2. Why do you want to be a doctor? This may seem pretty basic – and it is – but admissions officers need to know WHY you want to practice medicine. Many applicants make the mistake of simply listing what they have done without offering insights about those experiences that answer the question, “Why medicine?” Your reasons for wanting to be a doctor may overlap with those of other applicants. This is okay because the experiences in which you participated, the stories you can tell about those experiences, and the wisdom you gained are completely distinct—because they are only yours. Medical school admissions committees want to know that you have explored your interest deeply and that you can reflect on the significance of these experiences. But writing only that you “want to help people” does not support a sincere desire to become a physician; you must indicate why medicine in particular—rather than social work, teaching, or another “helping” profession—is your goal.

3.  How have your experiences influenced you? It is important to show how your experiences are linked and how they have influenced you. How did your experiences motivate you? How did they affect what else you did in your life? How did your experiences shape your future goals? Medical school admissions committees like to see a sensible progression of involvements. While not every activity needs to be logically “connected” with another, the evolution of your interests and how your experiences have nurtured your future goals and ambitions show that you are motivated and committed.

Also keep on mind some common myths about personal statements that I hear quite often:

1.  My personal statement must have a theme. Not true. The vast majority of personal statements do not have themes. In fact, most are somewhat autobiographical and are just as interesting as those statements that are woven around a “theme.” It is only the very talented writer who can creatively write a personal statement around a theme, and this approach often backfires since the applicant fails to answer the three questions above.

2.  My personal statement must be no longer than one page. Not true. This advice is antiquated and dates back to the days of the written application when admissions committees flipped through pages. If your personal statement is interesting and compelling, it is fine to use the entire allotted space. The application systems have incorporated limits for exactly this reason! Many students, depending on their unique circumstances, can actually undermine their success by limiting their personal statement to a page. That said, never max out a space just for the sake of doing so. Quality writing and perspectives are preferable to quantity.

3.  My personal statement should not describe patient encounters or my personal medical experiences. Not true. Again, the actual topics on which you focus in your personal statement are less important than the understanding you gained from those experiences. I have successful clients who have written extremely powerful and compelling personal statements that included information about clinical encounters – both personal and professional. Write about whichever experiences were the most important on your path to medicine. It’s always best, however, to avoid spending too much space on childhood and high school activities. Focus instead on those that are more current.

4.  In my personal statement I need to sell myself. Not exactly true. You never want to boast in your personal statement. Let your experiences, insights, and observations speak for themselves. You want your reader to draw the conclusion – on his or her own – that you have the qualities and characteristics the medical school seeks.  Never tell what qualities and characteristics you possess; let readers draw these conclusions on their own based on what you write.

Finally, when writing your medical school personal statement be sure it:

1.  Shows insight and introspection. The best medical school personal statements tell a great deal about what you have learned through your experiences and the insights you have gained.

2.  Flows well. You want to tell your story by highlighting those experiences that have been the most influential on your path to medical school and to give a clear sense of chronology. You want your statement always to be logical and never to confuse your reader.

3.  Is interesting and engaging. The best personal statements engage the reader. This doesn’t mean you must use big words or be a literary prize winner. Write in your own language and voice, but really think about your journey to medical school and the most intriguing experiences you have had.

4.  Gives the reader a mental image of who are. You want the reader to be able to envision you as a caregiver and a medical professional. You want to convey that you would be a compassionate provider at the bedside – someone who could cope well with crisis and adversity.

5. Illustrates your passion for medicine. Your reader must be convinced that you are excited about and committed to a career in medicine!

Above all, your personal statement should be about you. Explain to your reader what you have done and why you want to be a doctor with insight, compassion, and understanding.

Jessica Freedman is founder of MedEdits, also on Facebook and Twitter.  

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  • Molly_Rn

    Is written in English with Spell Check used for spelling and grammer before sending.

  • Mary Crigger

    I also suggest running your personal statement by 2 or 3 people not in your peer group so additional eyes can critique it before submission. You might try one of your English professors, one of your Science professors, and someone who works in human resources. If you share with them the rubric outlined in Dr. Freedman’s article when you pass them your personal statement, you will know quickly through the feedback if yours is spot on.