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Essay Workshop 101: Lesson 2: The Admissions Essay

Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner

Updated December 1, 2021. The article was updated to correct minor grammatical errors.

During that first, quick look at your file (transcripts, science and nonscience GPAs, MCAT scores, application, recommendations, and personal statement), what the admissions committee seeks is essentially the same:

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  1. Proven ability to succeed.
  2. Clear intellectual ability, analytical and critical thinking skills.
  3. Evidence that this person has the potential to make not only a good medical student, but a good doctor.

But the committee is looking for more than this in the essay specifically. We will discuss in detail the essay issues that were listed as most important by our advisory panel of admissions officers.


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, the question “Why?” You must be able to explain your motivation for attending medical school.

(Note: Quotes by members of EssayEdge panel of admissions officers in quote boxes.)

I look for a sustained understanding of why the candidate wants to enter medicine, how they’ve tested their interest, and how they’ve prepared for medical school.  Touch on your passion to pursue medicine. For many, medicine is akin to a calling, and the evaluator must get a sense that they are hearing and responding to the same motivation.

You will be offered much advice in the upcoming pages, with plenty of dos and don’ts. In the midst of all of this, whatever you do, do not lose sight of the ultimate goal of the essay-to convince the admissions committee members that you belong at their medical school. Everything we tell you should be used as a means to this end, so step back from the details of this process regularly and remind yourself of the big picture:

The essay is the way for candidates to make the argument as to why they, among all the highly qualified candidates, should be admitted to medical school and the eventual practice of medicine.

Writing/Communication Skills

Another obvious function of the essay is to showcase your language abilities and writing skills.

In the essay I want a clear sense that they understand and can communicate well why they are compelling candidates.  Especially if an applicant did some or all of the prerequisite coursework in another country, we will look to the essay to ensure strong English language skills.

At this level, good writing skills are not sought; they are expected. So, while a beautifully written essay isn’t going to get you into medical school, a poorly written one could keep you out.

Beyond showcasing your writing abilities and demonstrating your motivation, what else can the essay do for you? Following is more of what the members of the advisory panel said they look for in an essay.

Soft Skills

Let the rest of your application, not the personal statement, speak for your hard skills and achievements (such as your academic excellence, your fantastic MCAT scores, your class rank). What admissions officers seek in the essay are some specific soft skills such as sincerity, maturity, empathy, compassion, and motivation. These qualities were rated especially high in the medical community, more so than for any other graduate-level program we studied.

YOUR SOFTER SIDE: Personal Qualities Sought by Medical School Staff
(Listed according to the number of times the qualities were mentioned)
commitmentuniquenesscommunication skills
sincerityinteresthumanitarian beliefs

Because these qualities are not quantifiable, and therefore not easily demonstrated through the usual criteria of grades and numbers, the essay is your first opportunity (and one of your only ones) to showcase them.

A successful essay will demonstrate in one way or another that the writer has the soft skills necessary to be a good doctor. This applicant was very direct in asserting his soft skills.

Motivation, independence, maturity, precisely those qualities my experiences in Eastern Europe instilled, will be essential to a fruitful career.

When qualities are mentioned as directly as this, the applicant must be careful to support the claims with clear evidence gathered from personal experience. More often, applicants let their achievements and experiences speak for themselves, and the qualities that they demonstrate are inferred.

A Real Person

This list is not ordered by importance; if it were, this category would be listed first. What admissions officers said they seek more than any specific skill or characteristic mentioned in the personal statement is a real, live human being:

The members of a medical admissions committee are responsible for choosing the next generation of medical doctors.  These are the people who will be healing our children, curing us and our parents, and literally saving lives. Put it in that perspective and the responsibility we feel is enormous. For this reason, we’re going to choose to accept someone we feel we know, trust, and like.

In light of this, then, it might not surprise you that when we asked admissions officers and medical students for their number one piece of advice regarding the essay, we received the same response almost every time. Although it was expressed in many different ways (be honest, be sincere, be unique, be personal, and so on) it all came down to the same point: “Be Yourself!”

My number one piece of advice is: Be yourself when you write the essay. The medical profession is a lifetime commitment. Let those in the profession know what drives you towards it!

Unfortunately, achieving this level of communication in writing does not come naturally to everyone, but that does not mean it cannot be learned. Part of what can make this kind of writing seem so difficult is that it is very hard to gauge the impressions you are creating through your writing. Even if you have followed every tip in this course, it is a good idea to have some objective people-preferably those who do not already know you well-read it over when you have finished.

Get Personal

The only way to let the admissions committee see you as an individual is to make your essay personal. When you do this, your essay will automatically be more interesting and engaging, helping it stand out from the hundreds of others the committee will be reviewing that week.

After reading hundreds of essays in my time on the Harvard Medical School admissions committee, I would tell people a couple of key things. First, make it personal. The most boring, dry essays are those that go on about how the applicant loves science and working with people and wants to serve humanity, but offer few personal details that give a sense of what the applicant is like.

Personalize your essay as much as possible-generic essays are not only boring to read, they’re a waste of time because they don’t tell you anything about the applicant that helps you get to know them better.

What does it mean to make your essay personal? It means that you drop the formalities and write about something that is truly meaningful to you. It means that you include a story or anecdote taken from your life, using ample detail and colorful imagery to give it life. And it means, above all, being completely honest.

Please see our sample essays for examples of essays that get personal, including the essay by this Duke applicant. The writer begins by recollecting her experience with anorexia and her admiration for the doctor who saved her life. But it is more than the story that makes her essay real — it is the way that she describes her experiences. She uses a personal tone throughout the essay, for example when she describes herself while volunteering at an AIDS clinic:

“I am constantly reminded of how much I have to learn. I look at a baby and notice its cute, pudgy toes. Dr. V. plays with it while conversing with its mother, and in less than a minute has noted its responsiveness, strength, and attachment to its parent, and checked its reflexes, color and hydration. Gingerly, I search for the tympanic membrane in the ears of a cooperative child and touch an infant’s warm, soft belly, willing my hands to have a measure of Dr. V.’s competence.”

It is her admittance that she doesn’t yet know everything she needs to know coupled with the picture she paints of herself noticing a baby’s “cute pudgy toes” and “gingerly” searching in “the ear of a cooperative child” and touching “an infant’s warm, soft belly.” As readers, we do not have to strain to create a mental image of the author as a caring, still somewhat tentative individual. This vivid portrayal is painted by a series of personal details.
Just as this writer did not rely on her story of anorexia to make her essay personal, one admissions officer comments:

A personal epiphany, tragedy, life change, or earth-shattering event is not essential to a strong essay.

This point cannot be stressed enough. Personal does not necessarily mean heavy, or emotional, or awe-inspiring. It is a small minority of students who will truly have had a life-changing event to write about. Perhaps they have spent time living abroad or have experienced death or disease from close proximity. But this is the exception and not the rule.

In fact, students who rely too heavily on these weighty experiences often do themselves an injustice. They often don’t think about what has really touched them or interests them because they are preoccupied with the topic that they think will impress the committee. They write about their grandfather’s death because they think that only death (or the emotional equivalent) is significant enough to make them seem introspective and mature. What often happens, however, is that they rely on the experience itself to speak for them and never explain what it meant to them or give a solid example of how it was emotionally influencing. In other words, they don’t make it personal.

Details, Details, Details

To make your essay personal, learn from the example above and use details. Show them, don’t tell, who you are by backing your claims with real experiences.

Essays only really help you if they are unique and enable the reader to get a sense of who you are based on examples and scenarios and ideas, rather than lists of what you’ve done. The readers want to find out who this person is, not what the person has done, although the two are obviously interrelated.

The keywords from this quote are examples, scenarios, and ideas. Using detail means being specific. Each and every point that you make needs to be backed up by specific instances taken from your experience. It is these details that make your story unique and interesting.

Tell a Story

Tell a story. It always makes for more interesting reading and it usually conveys something more personal than such blanket statements as “I want to help people.”

Incorporating a story into your essay can be a great way to make it interesting and enjoyable. The safest and most common way of integrating a story into an essay is to tell the story first, then step back into the role of narrator and explain why it was presented and what lessons were learned. The reason this method works is that it forces you to begin with the action, which is a sure way to get the readers’ attention and keep them reading.

Many of the sample essays on this site make effective use of storytelling. This essay begins with a tale of stage fright before a theater performance, while this essay begins with a newspaper clipping about the writer as a child. This Harvard applicant takes an even more creative approach to the story method by incorporating the tale of a prehistoric woman whose bones he has analyzed. A story is best used to draw the reader in, and it should always relate back to the motivation to attend medical school or the ability to succeed once admitted.

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From Essays That Will Get You Into College, by Amy Burnham, Daniel Kaufman, and Chris Dowhan. Copyright 1998 by Dan Kaufman. Reprinted by arrangement with Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.  Materials for Essay Statements Workshop 101 are provided courtesy of EssayEdge.

Copyright 2002 EssayEdge. All rights reserved.