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Not Another Crayon in the Box: Writing a Successful Personal Statement for Medical School Part 1

Created September 19, 2012 by Alex M. Jennings


Part one of a two part series.

Although there are numerous options for writing a personal statement (PS), successful ones incorporate insightful personal narratives into standard rhetorical moves, captivating medical school admissions committees while relaying pertinent information. Every year, competition to get into medical school gets fiercer. As a result, successful applicants have increasingly higher MCAT scores and GPAs, making it harder for individuals to stand out. The application’s PS section is what provides this opportunity. Though it cannot substitute for low scores, it can be a deciding factor in whether or not students are accepted. It is a personal essay, which presents applicants as individuals, future-physicians, and ideal candidates for their medical schools of choice. The most compelling studies and expert opinions indicate that successful PSs tend to follow five major rhetorical steps as they incorporate personal narratives. Following these suggestions will help medical school applicants to secure that much-coveted interview.

You’ve worked hard as an undergraduate, earning a respectable GPA and competitive MCAT scores. Experiences in leadership, community service, research, and physician-shadowing line your resume. Your favorite professors, boss, and director of the local hospital volunteer program have all written you glowing letters of recommendation. Now you want to apply to medical school, and you think you have a good chance of making it into your top choices. Does this sound like you?

Unfortunately, this generic profile describes almost every one of the thousands of applicants to medical school each year. According to their “Class Statistics” webpage, Harvard Medical School’s entering class this year (2011) has an average GPA of 3.8 and composite MCAT score of 36, not to mention a wealth of diverse backgrounds and pre-medical experiences. For a class size of 165, they received over 5,400 applications—a 3% acceptance rate (HMS, 2011). Yet Harvard is hardly alone among the nation’s one hundred and sixty-one MD/DO programs in statistics like these. This begs the question: When standing shoulder to shoulder with the nation’s best and brightest, how do you stand tall enough to be seen? The answer lies within one of the most overlooked areas of the medical school application—the personal statement. This is what makes you stick out, so applications committees can tell you’re “not just another crayon in the box.” Although there are numerous options for writing a PS, successful ones incorporate insightful personal narratives into five standard rhetorical moves, captivating medical school admissions committees while relaying pertinent information.

The Role of the Personal Statement

The PS is unique within professional writing. Though it is a crucial part of medical education, professionals in the field do not write it—only novices do (Bekins et al., 2004). As a result, successful writing instruction is often overlooked by pre-medical courses, so applicants are often lacking in formal instruction on how to write a good PS. Years of science-heavy instruction (the most common background for pre-meds) only exacerbates this problem by limiting writing to research reports and academic analyses.

Unfortunately, the prompt given in the AMCAS application doesn’t offer much more clarification. It reads: “The Essay(s) section is where you will compose your personal comments explaining any pertinent information not included elsewhere in the application.” Other than this vague instruction, the only other criteria given by the application is. “The available space for this essay is 5300 characters (spaces are counted as characters), or approximately one page” (AMCAS, 2011). For the osteopathic (DO) schools application, the character restriction is limited to 4500, including spaces (AACOMAS, 2011). So what kind of “pertinent information” you should share?

The personal statement is your opportunity to show the most “pertinent information” of all: the genuine, diligent, driven, future physician behind all the numbers. “What we can’t tell from grades and scores,” says one admissions committee member, “is whether the applicant will thrive in a medical career. That’s where the PS comes in (Bekins et al., 2004).” This is your chance to show that you are the kind of person who will “thrive in a medical career.” But how?

According to Pat Fero, the director of admissions at the University of Washington, one mistake many applicants make is “discussing their intellectual capabilities as a major factor in being a good candidate for medicine” (Stewart, 2002). The reason why, she gives, is because it is redundant. Your application already contains sections for coursework, test scores, research, community service, etc.—lists that show what you have accomplished. While these experiences may seem unique to you, they demonstrate intellectual capacities shared by the majority of applicants. In contrast, the PS is what brings these somewhat generic statistics to life, giving the evaluators a glimpse into your mind and heart. This is your first chance to show, rather than tell, who you are.

To write a successful PS, follow the style moves suggested by experts, but tailor them to your own experience. Despite following a similar format, PSs reveal individuality by sharing thoughtful, personal insights.The most successful PSs do two things: they follow a standard rhetorical format and use authentic personal narratives.

Standard Rhetorical Format

In order to succeed in any professional career, you must first have a good understanding of rhetoric. This is defined as “the art of discourse…that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations” (Corbett, 1990). In the case of the PS, you are the writer, your audience is the applications committee, and your intent is to get them to extend you an interview. This is where the “rhetorical steps” come in.

The most successful PSs follow five rhetorical steps. These have been observed by several independent researchers, in collaboration with admissions committee evaluators, who analyzed hundreds of PSs looking for rhetorical trends (Jones & Baer, 2003). The five steps are the “hook”, program, background, self-promotion, and projection (Bekins et al., 2004).

As a word of caution, these steps should not form separate paragraphs; rather, they are tools to help you to “inform, persuade, or motivate” your audience (Corbett, 1990). As such, they should be worked into the fabric of your PS without overtly drawing attention to themselves. These five rhetorical moves are the wooden frame supporting the fascinating self-portrait you are painting into the personal essay section.

The first step is called the “hook,” because it is what immediately catches your reader’s attention. “The best essays,” writes expert Juliet Farmer from, “grab the reader’s attention on the first read, and hold it even if it’s the last essay of the day for the reader.” This could be achieved with a quote, story, or anecdote, as long as it is directly applicable to the scope of your essay.

Next comes the “program.” This is where you briefly answer the question, “Why do you want to go to medical school (i.e. this ‘program’)?” In regards to this topic, Fero states: “At [the University of Washington], when the committee members read the AMCAS personal statements they look for motivation–why the individual really wants to go into medicine; what really gave him or her the ‘call’, so to speak” (Stewart, 2002). They know how difficult medical school is, and therefore need assurance that applicants are dedicated in their decision to pursue medicine.

Move three, “background,” is your chance to explain what in your background qualifies you for medical school. Often, writers combine this with other moves, choosing to tell a story which shows their preparation for and drive toward medicine. This is not just a resume listing your achievements; rather, it describes what you gained from your most important life experiences. According to Barton et al. (2004), this typically includes personal narratives of experiences relating to illness, injury, death, medicine, work, sports, hobbies, or travel.

Due to short face time with the applications committee reader, the PS needs to “function as both an essay and an advertisement” (Farmer, 2007). So, after hooking your audience, explaining why you want to join the program, and presenting your background, it is now your time to “advertise”. Self-promotion, in this sense, is where you mention your volunteer work at the homeless shelter, your participation in a vaccination program in India, or other relevant experience with work, school, volunteering, extracurricular activities, or hobbies. Be careful, though, to only briefly include those details which are relevant, and not to waste time or space mentioning interesting but irrelevant experiences. This needs to be meaningful and help your audience connect to you, not just a list of impressive details.

The last of the rhetorical moves is the “projection” move. This is the stage where you outline your career goals, your life aspirations. Where do you see yourself in twenty years? Whether you see yourself pioneering new techniques in heart surgery or making home visits in rural America, you should share this vision. Doing so will reveal to your audience that you have carefully considered your options, and that you have a real goal to become a physician.

These five rhetorical moves give you a framework with which to structure your essay. But yet again, if the most successful PSs use this format, what will make yours stand out? This is where authentic personal narrative come into play.

Come back next week for the second part of the series where the author discusses personal narratives and offers final thoughts about how to write a winning personal statement.

American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service. (2011). AACOMAS Application Instructions 2012, 13. Retrieved from
American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). (2011). How to apply. Retrieved from
Barton, E., Ariail, J., & Smith, T. (2004). The professional in the personal: The genre of personal statements in residency applications. Issues in Writing, 15(1), 76-124.
Bekins, L. K., Huckin, T. N., & Kijak, L. (2004). The personal statement in medical school applications: Rhetorical structure in a diverse and unstable context.Issues in Writing,15(1), 56-75.
Corbett, E. P. J. (1990). Classical rhetoric for the modern student. New York: Oxford University Press, 1.
Farmer, J. (2007). Before you write your personal statement, read this. Retrieved from
Freedman, J. (2010). Personal statement myths. Retrieved from
Harvard Medical School (HMS). (2011). Class Statistics. Retrieved from
Harvard University. (2011). The Medical School Personal Statement. [Powerpoint Presentation]. Retrieved from personal_statement_2011.pdf
Huiling D. (2007). Genre analysis of personal statements: Analysis of moves in application essays to medical and dental schools. English for Specific Purposes, 26(3): 368-392.
Jones, S., & Baer, E. A. (2003). Essays that worked for medical school. Westminster, MD: Ballantine Books, 32-34, 40.
Stewart, M. (2002). Perfect personal statements: law, business, medical, graduate school. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s. In order of reference, the following pages were consulted: 112, 8, 111, 105, 16-19
Tips for Writing Personal Statements. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Health Professions Program. Retrieved from


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