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Personal Statement Myths

Created April 4, 2010 by Jessica Freedman, MD
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You have read every thread on SDN about personal statements, but you still aren’t sure what you should or should not do. A ton of conflicting information is “out there” and whether you are applying to medical school, pharmacy school or anything in between, you need to be aware of some common myths about what you “must” do.

I hear about most of these myths from medical school applicants: “But my advisor said I should NEVER write about that!” “But, my fourth cousin once removed who is in medical school at a top 10 school said I shouldn’t do that.” Like everything else in the medical admissions process, personal statements have few absolutes or formulas so always take such definitive advice with a grain of salt. So, what are some of the myths I hear most often?

Myth #1: Never write about anything that took place in the past or before college.

This myth is one of my favorites. Your goal is to give admissions committees a complete picture of who you are, what motivates you and how your interests have evolved. For most of the clients with whom I work, these pivotal experiences occurred well before they made the decision to apply to medical school; this makes sense since it takes years to complete the prerequisites that allow you to apply. While you don’t want to dwell on something that happened in the distant past, if one of your most motivating experiences happened in high school or even grade school, then you should mention it. The only caveat to this advice is that it is never convincing if you write about things that occurred early in childhood. For example, it is unlikely that you really remember what happened to you when you were 4 or that you were old enough even to think about what you wanted to do when you grew up.

Myth #2: Never write about topics unrelated to medicine.

If you are an accomplished musician, artist or athlete, you won’t want to write an entire essay on this topic, but if some significant activity or event in the past influenced your path, then, by all means, mention it in your personal statement. With their emphasis on the holistic review of applicants, admissions committees are seeking diverse applicants and the definition of diversity is broad. No one expects that you have spent your entire life in the library, a lab or a doctor’s office. That said, most of what you write about in your essay should in some way be linked to your motivation to pursue your desired career.

Myth #3: Never write about a patient encounter or your own experience with health care.

I hear this from applicants all the time: “But, everyone writes about patients. I want to be different.” “My roommate from last year wrote about her grandmother’s death. That seems so cliche.” Some topics are indeed common, but what is not uniform is how applicants write about these experiences. Everyone has different stories, observations and insights. So, while some topics may superficially seem similar or “popular,” your perceptions and description of how these experiences influenced you need not be trite. I have read hundreds (actually, probably thousands) of essays about patient encounters and illness, yet the good ones still stand out and tell me so much about the applicant’s motivation, character, maturity and insight. Not only is the topic you choose important; how you convey your insightful thoughts and ideas on that topic is equally so.

Myth #4: Always have a theme or a thesis.

Every year applicants tell me: “I showed the personal statement to my (premed advisor/uncle/sister/mom’s friend who is a doctor) and they said it is awful because I don’t have a theme.” Most personal statements don’t have a theme or a thesis. What is important is that your essay has “flow” and good transitions. With about a one page limit, it is tough to develop a strong theme in an essay and this isn’t really the goal of the personal statement. It should tell your story, and that story usually doesn’t have a theme. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have “common threads” in your statement. For example, you may have multiple meaningful experiences that are all related to global health or working with the underserved. I have read only a handful of personal statements that have had a well defined theme or thesis.

Myth #5: Don’t write about anything negative.

You never want to bad-mouth anything or anyone in your essay, yet I find that this advice extends to “never write about a negative or less-than-sunny experience.” For example, if you had a poor undergraduate academic performance because a close family member got sick or you had transition issues and were terribly homesick and immature, you should address the negative experience and explain what happened and why. Or, maybe you had difficulty during your childhood because you were an immigrant or were underprivileged. I commonly hear, “I don’t want to write about that. Yes, it was important but I don’t want to tell a sob story or sound negative.” As long as you write about your experiences in terms of how they helped you to grow and how they influenced your choices, you will not be perceived in a bad light.

There are hundreds of myths about what you “should” and “should not” do when writing your personal statement. In general, few absolute rules apply and, above all else, you should be yourself, tell your story and demonstrate insight and introspection about your experiences and your choice of profession.

Jessica Freedman, MD, a former medical admissions officer, is president of MedEdits, a medical school, residency and fellowship admissions consulting firm. She is also the author of the MedEdits blog, The Medical School Interview: From Preparation to Thank You Notes and host of MedEdits Podcasts.

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