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Not Another Crayon in the Box: Writing a Successful Personal Statement for Medical School Part 2

Created September 26, 2012 by Alex M. Jennings


Part two of a two part series. Part one may be found here.

Personal Narratives

The medical school admissions committee members interviewed in the aforementioned studies offer plenty of advice on what they are looking for in a good PS. Mark Stewart, author of Perfect Personal Statements, offers this advice: “Strive for depth, not breadth. An effective personal statement will focus on one or two specific themes, incidents, or points” (Stewart, 2002). Thus, despite there being five rhetorical moves, you need not use as many personal narratives: keep it short, focused, and poignant. Content is the key.

Judy Colwell, Assistant Director. Of Admissions at Stanford Medical School, said that as far as content, they want applicants to show who they are. She continues: “Some personal statements are so wonderfully written that we’ll get goose bumps or be in tears. Most applicants don’t write so beautifully, of course (Stewart, 2002).” With thoughtful consideration, you should be able to find the right stories to tell. Then, maybe your PS will have as deep an effect on your reader as Colwell says.

One way that you can show who you are is by revealing thoughtful, personal insight. For example, J. Freedman, from, says that he has read hundreds of narratives about healthcare experiences. These can get trite and boring, he says, “yet the good ones still stand out and tell me so much about the applicant’s motivation, character, maturity and insight (Freedman, 2010).” His point is that it is not just what you say, but how you choose to convey your insights—that is what makes all the difference.

There are several ways to add color to the picture you are painting of yourself through your PS. The Carnegie Mellon Health Professions Advisement office offers some good ideas, including:
…using sensory details to help set scenes, like mentioning what the sky looks like, what color a child’s dress is, or how the food smells. This is one way to make sure your reader is right there with you. You can also share your personal emotions and indicate how your surroundings affected you. This will give the reader a better idea of your individualism, and make experiences that may be common seem unique (“Tips for Writing Personal Statements”).

By following these suggestions, you will ensure that you “show, rather than tell”, who you are. There are also several style details of which you need to be aware. One of them has to do with length limitations. Since you only have 4500-5300 characters to work with, depending on where you apply, there is not enough space for a full introduction or conclusions. You should also avoid “hackneyed introductions and conclusion clichés” (Stewart, 2002). In addition, Stewart warns against referring to yourself in the third person (“Alex will make a great physician because he…”), trying to impress with vocabulary or technical jargon, and doing anything gimmicky with fonts, formats, or rhyming schemes (p. 16-19). One reviewer recalls receiving a PS where the text was shaped into a large tear-drop and written in rhyming couplets. Although originality is key, don’t be annoying and overbearing! Doing so will hurt, rather than help your chances of getting an interview.


“Show, don’t tell!” –This trite expression is oft repeated to pre-medical students. While it may be a good piece of advice, it’s something that is easier said than done. Hopefully, with this summary of relevant research, you will see the importance of weaving deep, personal insights into a standard rhetorical framework. Although the medical school application essay prompt is designed to let you freely express yourself, research has shown that the most successful PSs follow these highlighted suggestions.

The biggest task left to you now, as an aspiring future physician, is to think deeply about which experiences have shaped your life the most. You need to dig deep to uncover that poignant experience which fuels your drive to medicine. It’s a hard path you’ve chosen, but only you know why this is right for you. As you consider which stories to tell, make sure not to just tell the reader what you think they want to hear. If you’re wondering about how to tie in your experience as a missionary in Guatemala, your difficulties in overcoming challenges as a minority, or whatever it may be, first ask yourself the following: Is this a part of my identity and reason for pursuing medicine? Remember that what an experience means to you is more important than how impressive it looks to others.

According to Bekins et al. (2004), your audience wants to see “a clear statement of what the applicant had learned from his or her life experiences” (p.60). Introspection and reflection, showing how “life lessons” shaped your thinking or behavior, count more than technical preparation. Even blemishes on your record can help you, if you show what you learned from them (p. 67).

Life is about to become complicated for those of you who are preparing for medical school. You’re studying for the MCAT, securing your letters of recommendation, and filling out your applications—all time consuming, tedious tasks. When you feel overwhelmed, or when you get to work on your PS and can’t think of what to mention, simply pretend you are just writing to a friend about why you want to go into medicine (Harvard University, 2011). If you get stuck or frustrated, just think about how deeply your essay could affect your readers. How much relief will you feel when you get an interview, and you find out it was because of your thoughtful PS? Writing well can be difficult, but with these tips, the keys are now in your hands.

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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