Part one of a two part series about how to write a winning personal statement. Come back next week for the second part and more information about how to use your words to sell yourself!
Students typically have strong aversions to the personal essay because we’re told to avoid using personal pronouns throughout our entire academic career. Subconsciously, we’ve learned “I”, “My”, “We”, and “Our” are telltale signs of bias, unreliability, and inaccuracy. The aversion isn’t that we actually fear expressing our opinions, but that we simply aren’t comfortable writing about ourselves in memoir form. That’s it. I say this with certainty because most poorly written student essays suffer from the same recurring errors, and when I address students about the issue, the response is overwhelmingly the same: “I didn’t know how else to write it.”
Some schools are polite enough to give strict requirements on essays. They want x-number of words on why this school, x-number on your academic career, and x-number on autobiographical information. These are blessings in disguise, but they must be approached logically. Instead of sitting down and pounding out 200 words and moving on to the next section, consider that every other applicant is doing the same thing, and that the pound-it-out method doesn’t necessarily produce coherent thoughts. You need to know exactly how those words will be allocated. If you have to write 200 words on “Why this school,” divide up that section accordingly. For example, in 200 words, you might spend 50 words on research opportunities provided by a university, 100 words on the specific course of study you plan to pursue, and 50 words on the advantage of their alumni networks. By outlining each section before you write, you will avoid rambling and be able to move on to the next section.
Maybe your school only provides you with an overall word maximum, but still gives you specific areas to talk about. A good rule of thumb is to divide up the total word count between each section, allotting equal space for each topic. If you feel more passionately about one section, feel free to write more, but don’t do it at the total expense of another. To solve this, you can also create a mandatory word-minimum per topic. By breaking these sections down as discussed above, you’ll be able to give a sense of coherence and completion to the essay.
While the essay is an opportunity for you to tell a school all about yourself, it’s also an opportunity for the school to evaluate how you think (not necessarily judge who you are). Doctors are smart people, but they are organized, methodical people who can address subjects directly, logically, and completely. Some smart people simply don’t come across as observably organized or methodical, and their writing reflects this. When deciding between two candidates for a program spot, a medical college’s best investment in resources is the candidate who promises the most in return. This person is disciplined, conscientious, organized, and clear-thinking. If the structure of you essay doesn’t say this about you, it’s a good bet you won’t be considered the better-qualified candidate. Taking the time to map out your essay is a major step in standing out amongst your competition.
It’s All About You
The application essay is not the time to be humble. Medical schools want qualified applicants, for sure, but they also want confident applicants. Your transcript will show your academic proficiency (and if it doesn’t, the essay is the perfect opportunity to explain why), so your essay needs to be about your ambition, your philosophy, and your talents. That said, show maturity in your self-image. Acknowledge your accomplishments and shortcomings, your advantages and disadvantages, but keep it in perspective. For example, if you conduct undergraduate research in a lab setting, by all means say so, explaining briefly what your research is (in lay terms), how often you do it, and why you decided to do it. Your audience will determine if your time investment and the research is impressive and meaningful.
Relaying personal information in a useful way is the most difficult part of writing an essay. The way this information is written will tell your audience how you deal with stress, how you view yourself, and how you identify with others. If you come from a disadvantaged background or are a minority, the most important information that a reader should take away from your personal story is that you are strong-willed and determined to overcome your particular challenges. Bitterness, self-pity, self-loathing, or casting blame are turn-offs regardless of background. If your life has been absolute hell, explain how you got to where you are. The story of overcoming, of doing in spite of, tells the audience exactly how mentally tough you are. However, don’t play up a disadvantage if it hasn’t actually caused you hardship. If you’re invited for an interview, it is much easier to back up a truthful claim than attempt to elaborate a false one on the spot.
If you’re a student with good grades and a relatively unburdened life, you may think your personal story isn’t all that interesting, or worse, you may come across as naïve or unaffected by the struggles of others. This is the reason medical schools look for students who volunteer, shadow physicians, and are involved in extra-curricular activities. Being a member of your community means interacting with other members of your community. In other words, you don’t isolate yourself and have the ability to work with people outside of your social group. If you aren’t getting out of the house, you aren’t expanding your worldview, so get out there and gain experience. Then, write about it.
Imagine the work of the admissions committee, reading thousands of essays from all sorts of backgrounds. That said, the background itself is less important than the person that background has created, and medical schools want students who are community centered, world-wise, and driven. You are all these things, and now you know how to get it across.