A supplement to our Essay Workshop 101 Series.
Essays & personal statements are an anxiety-inducing part of the application process for many postgraduate applicants. Luckily, with some advice from experts and–we’re not going to sugar-coat it–a lot of work, your essay statement can stand apart from the rest.
Consider your audience
Medical school admissions committees range from a handful to two dozen members, and are generally a combination of full-time admissions staff, faculty, students and doctors from the community. There are often a variety of medical backgrounds represented, from clinical to general science, and from MDs, to PhDs, to students. Because decisions are made by voting, this variety helps ensure that every applicant receives proper consideration.
Most likely your essay will be read in its entirety by at least one of the members of the committee (usually one of the faculty members or second-year medical students). They will then consider all aspects of your application, and if they like what they see, you will be invited to interview. Admissions officers usually spend from three to 10 minutes looking at each essay during this first read, so you have to make an impact quickly.
Because admissions officers read 40 to 50 essays in a day during peak weeks, your personal statement must stand apart from dozens of others read in the same day.
Because your essay may only get a few minutes of face time, it needs to function as both an essay and an advertisement. The best essays 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.
Panelists say they look for several things in the essay. During that first, quick look at your file (transcripts, science and non-science GPAs, MCAT scores, application, recommendations and personal statement), they’re looking for a proven ability to succeed; clear intellectual ability, analytical and critical thinking skills; and evidence that you have the potential to make not only a good medical student, but also a good doctor.
Address your motivation
Your application to medical school is a testimony to your desire to ultimately be a doctor. The admissions committee will look at your essay to see that you’ve answered the obvious, but not so simple, question, “Why?”
The ultimate goal of your essay is to convince the reader that you belong at their medical school.
Another obvious function of the essay is to showcase your language abilities and writing skills. At this level, good writing skills are expected.
Admissions officers are looking for specific soft skills such as sincerity, maturity, empathy, compassion and motivation in your essay. Because these qualities are not easily quantified, and therefore not easily demonstrated through grades and numbers, your essay is among your first and only opportunities to showcase them.
Be truthful and personalize your essay as much as possible. Write about something that is genuinely meaningful to you, and include a story or anecdote taken from your life, using ample detail and colorful imagery to give it life.
Personal does not necessarily mean heavy, or emotional, or awe inspiring—that’s not required in a good essay. Give the reader a sense of who you are based on examples, scenarios and ideas, rather than lists of what you’ve done. Remember that each and every point that you make needs to be backed up by specific instances taken from your experience.
Try telling a story in your essay, and relate it back to the motivation to attend medical school or the ability to succeed once admitted. Story ideas can stem from a variety of sources.What are some special or pivotal experiences that you remember? Are there any significant lessons learned, achievements reached, painful moments endured, or obstacles overcome? Write down anything you are proud of doing, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem.
Perform an honest self-assessment of your skills, and try to draw connections between your unique skills and how they will make you a good doctor. Write about your qualities and characteristics and think of different situations in which you have exhibited these characteristics.
Relationships are another good source of essay material, particularly relationships that have challenged you to look at people in a different way. Write about your goals, and don’t limit yourself to professional goals.
Three common essay themes are “Why I Want to be a Doctor,” “Why I Am an Exceptional Person,” and “Why I Am a Qualified Person.”
Theme 1: Why I Want to Be a Doctor
Many people look back in time to find the moment of their initial inspiration. Some people have wanted to be a doctor so long they do not even know what originally inspired them. How old were you when you first wanted to become a doctor? Was there a defining moment? Was there ever any ambivalence? Were you inspired by a specific person? What kind of doctor do you want to be and how does that tie into your motivation?
If your personal experience with the medical profession is your motivation for attending medical school, then write about it.
If a loved one’s experience is what inspired your wish to become a doctor, then mention it, but don’t dwell on it, don’t over dramatize, and don’t let it stand as your sole motivation. Show that you’ve done your research and you understand the life of a doctor and you chose it for a variety of reasons.
Theme 2: Why I Am an Exceptional Person
This theme is often tied in closely with “why I am a qualified person.” The latter focuses on your experience (medical or otherwise) that qualifies you to be a better medical student, while the former focuses on you as a person.
What makes you different? Do you have any special talents or abilities that might make you more interesting? How will your skills and personality traits add diversity to the class? What makes you stand out from the crowd? How will this help you to be a better physician and student?
If you are one of the lucky few who have an outstanding talent or ability, mention it and try to tie the experience of that ability into your motivation for becoming a doctor.
If you are an older applicant, a minority, a foreign applicant or disabled, explain what your unique background will bring to the school and to the practice of medicine. Just be sure you tie it in with either your motivation or your argument for why your diversity makes you a better candidate.
Play up your strengths, especially if you don’t have a science background. Turn your potential weaknesses into strengths by pointing out that communication is an integral part of being a doctor, discussing the advantages of your well-rounded background, and demonstrating your motivation and qualifications in detail and with solid evidence.
If you have international experience, it may not set you apart in a completely unique way, but it is worthwhile to demonstrate your cross-cultural experience and sensitivity. Go beyond simply writing about your experiences to relating them either to your motivation or qualifications.
Theme 3: Why I Am a Qualified Person
The last major theme deals with your experience and qualifications, both for attending medical school and for becoming a good doctor. Having direct hospital or research experience is always the best evidence you can give. If you have none, then consider what other experience you have that is related. If you have done it, use it.
The important thing to remember here is that any type or amount of experience you have had should be mentioned, no matter how insignificant you feel it is.
Your experience does not even have to be medically related to be relevant. Many successful applicants cite non-medical volunteer experience as evidence of their willingness to help and heal the human race.
The most important leading sentence of all, of course, is the first sentence of your essay. The words and images you use must do more than simply announce the theme or topic of your essay-they must engage the reader. If, after the first sentence, the admissions counselor does not like what she sees, she may not continue reading. (You do not have to begin by writing the lead. Often, you will spot the lead floating around in the middle of your first draft.)
Standard leads are the most commonly used. A standard lead answers one or more of the six basic questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. It gives the reader an idea of what to expect. A summary lead is a kind of standard lead that attempts to answer most of these questions in one sentence.
Creative leads attempt to add interest by being obtuse or funny, and can leave you wondering what the essay will be about, or make you smile.
Action leads take the reader into the middle of a piece of action, and are perfect for short essays where space needs to be conserved or for narrative essays that begin with a story.
Personal or revealing leads reveal something about the writer, are always in the first person and usually take an informal, conversational tone.
Quotation leads can be a direct quotation or a paraphrase. It is most effective when the quote you choose is unusual, funny, or obscure, and not too long. Choose a quote with a meaning you plan to reveal to the reader as the essay progresses, but don’t use a proverb or cliché, and do not interpret the quote in your essay.
Dialogue leads take the reader into a conversation and can take the form of actual dialogue between two people or can simply be a snippet of personal thought.
Informative leads give the reader a fact or a statistic that is connected to the topic of your essay or simply provide a piece of information about yourself or a situation.
Last But Not Least, the Editing Checklist
Be sure you have answered the question asked and backed up each point that you made with concrete and personal examples, and be specific—no generalities allowed. Be sure the essay accurately represents you and sounds like you.
To check the overall structure of your essay, conduct a first-sentence check. Write down the first sentence of every paragraph in order. Read through them one after another and ask the following: Would someone who was reading only these sentences still understand exactly what you are trying to say? Do the first sentences express all of your main points? Do the thoughts flow naturally?
About your essay as a whole, does each paragraph stick to the thought that was introduced in the first sentence? Does a piece of evidence support each point? Is each paragraph roughly the same length? If not, you may be trying to squeeze too many thoughts into some of them. Does your conclusion draw naturally from the previous paragraphs? Have you varied the length and structure of your sentences?
Look at your essay with the interest equation in mind: personal + specific = interesting. Answer the following:
1. Is the opening paragraph personal?
2. Do you start with action or an image?
3. Does the essay show rather than tell?
4. Did you use any words that are not usually a part of your vocabulary? (If so, get rid of them.)
5. Have you used the active voice whenever possible?
6. Have you overused adjectives and adverbs?
7. Have you eliminated clichés?
8. Have you deleted redundancies?
9. Does the essay sound interesting to you?
10. Will the ending give the reader a sense of completeness? Does the last sentence sound like the last sentence?
Be sure to check for proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
With these tips, you’ll have the foundation for a personal statement essay that has that “wow” factor that makes you stand out—in a good way.