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Tales from an Insider: Personal Statement Failures

Created March 12, 2013 by Michelle A. Finkel, MD
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Imagine this: It’s fifteen years from now, late at night. You’ve completed a long clinical day, had a quick dinner, and now you are ready to relax…

Unfortunately, you can’t: You have twenty personal statements to read by tomorrow. You sit down on the couch, eyeing the documents that will keep you from getting eight hours of sleep, and get to reading.

This scenario describes me several years ago when I was a Harvard Medical School faculty member and the Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency Program’s Assistant Director. Did I resent the essays? No. Was I desperate to have them grab my attention and keep me from snoring? Absolutely.

So, what pitfalls can you avoid so that your statement is more asset than liability, convincing the reader to invite you for an interview? There are several, so let me review them below to help you avert an essay disaster:

All stuff, no fluff.

I have always wanted to be a doctor because I love people and want to help them.

Being an internist has been my life dream because, through the field, I can make the world a better place.

My passion for surgery is greater than can be imagined. I want to heal with my hands.

One of the biggest turn offs for an admissions reader is flowery, empty language. Even novice readers can easily smell beauty pageant writing.

Your essay should be a persuasive document. Your role is to convince medical schools or residencies that you deserve a slot at their institutions. The best way to persuade is with facts, just like a lawyer does when s/he is trying a case in front of a judge. Saying you love people or want to make the world a better place is not convincing, and it doesn’t distinguish you from the scores of other applicants the reader may be assessing. You need to prove your value and your distinctiveness with your academic, clinical, research, community service, leadership, international, and teaching achievements.

If there is a sentence in your personal statement that could have been written by someone else (especially Miss America), it is not worth the space on the page.

The pneumonia that, thankfully, didn’t kill your grandma might still kill your application.

The gentle and prompt treatment Grandma got from the emergency physician made me realize I wanted to be a doctor too.

The cardiologist was so skilled, I committed myself to becoming an internist just like her.

Some candidates devote a significant portion of their medical school or ERAS® essays to describing a universal experience that initially piqued their interest in medicine or a particular specialty. I mean no disrespect to anyone’s ill family member (sadly, we have all had them), but writing about your personal experience with the medical field is overused, and it may bore your admissions reader. Just because your sentiment is genuine, it is unlikely to be compelling reading or a strategic means to distinguish you from the hundreds of other applicants whose personal statements share the same themes. In other words, the medical staff who impressed you so much when they were caring for your loved one does not reflect anything about your qualifications.

There are exceptions to this rule: If you can swiftly move from a brief personal medical story to your research on a related topic you may be able to pull the personal medical anecdote off. For example, if an applicant had a family member with autism and was consequently motivated to do NIH research on the disease, the personal medical story might be a means to introduce her research and associated publications. (This is a rare scenario.)

You’re the Inspiration: Why syrupy 80’s song titles make bad essay themes.

I learned so much from a frail, 60-year old woman who presented to the clinic with abdominal pain…. After the doctor gave her the diagnosis, she held my hand and we sat together while I comforted her, this former stranger who was now my friend.

A slightly different but related tactic is writing about moving patient stories. Most medical school and all residency applicants have patient vignettes to share, which means that a patient story does not distinguish an applicant from the masses of other candidates. The only caveat to this rule is the writer who can pull off a very concise patient story that then segues into her associated accomplishments, supporting a specific strength in her application. Writing about a patient you saw while volunteering at a Mother Teresa Missionary of Charity clinic could be powerful if it highlights your international community service work and transitions into your masters in public health and tropic disease research. (Again, a rare scenario.)

Childhood dreams may charm Aunt Mabel, but she’s not on the admissions committee.

As a three-year old, I dressed in scrubs for Halloween; I have always wanted to be a doctor.

I loved my doctor so much as a child, I knew that some day I, too, wanted to be a pediatrician.

Talking about your long-standing, childhood desire to be a transplant surgeon rarely works. First, the tactic is (perhaps surprisingly) overused. I’ve read countless essays about the doctor Halloween costume. Also – and you’ll start to see a theme here – these stories do not engage your reader nor further your candidacy. So, you’ve wanted to study germs since you were a kid? How does that support your being a great contributor to a medical institution or a future leader in your field? It doesn’t, which is why admissions readers have no interest in hearing about it.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Go back to that image of you – as a faculty member – facing twenty personal statements before you can get some zzzs. Really, the last thing you need is a verbose essay, droning on and on.

Applicants ask me if they should use every character allowable for their medical school and residency personal statements. There’s an easy answer: No.

Quantity is rarely quality, and in medical essay writing that is especially true. When approaching your personal statement, use two techniques to keep your writing tight. First, limit your essay to a page, no matter what. You will be surprised how this tactic will keep your essay from meandering and put your reader in a good mood. Second, imagine AMCAS® or ERAS® is charging you $10 for each word you write. How can you save a few bucks? Cut to keep you writing sharp. If you do a good job, you can still produce substantive, nuanced, and persuasive prose.

You only have one chance to ruin a first impression.

Readers do not like being confused, and you can’t blame them. Some medical school and residency applicants make the mistake of subtly referring to their crowning, distinguishing accomplishment without fleshing it out. Different faculty members will approach the application in different ways, so – to get “full credit” for your accomplishments – you need to assume that your reader is seeing your essay first, independent of your AMCAS® or ERAS® activities.

Ensure your personal statement can stand alone and doesn’t rely on your AMCAS® or ERAS® activities’ section for clarification.

So now, go back to that image of you as a faculty member in fifteen years. You’ve read the twenty essays assigned to you, you’ve weeded out the empty, trite, verbose ones, and you’ve honed in on the ones chocked full of substance. Keep that image in mind as you write your essay, and think carefully how you can work toward writing that wake-up essay among the crowd of soporifics.

Dr. Finkel, formerly an Assistant Residency Director and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, founded Insider Medical Admissions to level the admissions playing field by offering elite advising services for residency, medical school, fellowship, post-baccalaureate, and dental schools applicants. Check out Dr. Finkel’s under-one-minute, stop motion Guru on the Go© videos on her Youtube site and join her on Facebook and Twitter.

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