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Fighting the Blank Page: Tips for Starting Your Personal Statement

I love writing but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, “You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over, giftless. I’m not your agent and I’m not your mommy. I’m a white piece of paper, you wanna dance with me?” And I really, really don’t.
—Aaron Sorkin
You’ve overcome so much to make it this far. From surviving OChem and taking your MCATs to finding volunteer opportunities that demonstrate your passion for medicine, you have accomplished a great deal to get to the point of being able to fill out that AMCAS application. And yet, writing your personal statement can feel like the most painful hurdle in your path. Like Aaron Sorkin, creator of works such as The West Wing, The Social Network, and Moneyball, you just really, really don’t want to dance with that blank page. Even if you love to write and going to med school is just a temporizing measure until you publish the next great American novel, getting a handle on your personal statement can be challenging. With so much riding on 5300 characters (counting spaces!), how to get started?

Brainstorm

“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”
— Jack London
Your best personal statement likely won’t come from your first idea – it might be your third idea or your thirteenth idea or your thirtieth idea. Set aside time to just brainstorm. Give yourself a set amount of time – say ten minutes – with pencil and paper. Start with whatever style of brainstorming has worked for you in the past, whether that’s writing out a simple list, creating a mind map with a constellation of interconnected ideas or drawing out charts, graphs or other visual depictions of your ideas. For successful brainstorming, keep in mind a few basic ground rules. Avoid judging your ideas. Just write whatever pops into your head. Remember: no one else needs to see it. Set yourself a time-limit and focus on the task at hand. Close Facebook and don’t check your email for those few minutes.
To spark your brainstorming, ask yourself, what do I want the admissions committee to know about me? Yes, you need them to know you hope to be a doctor, but so do the over 40,000 others applying for medical school. What makes you unique? What do you do well? Can you connect that to your decision to be a doctor? How does being a doctor fit into your life goals? After you’ve finished, circle your favorite ideas – these are the themes you’ll develop further. For me, I decided I wanted to emphasize my curiosity and tendency to seek out challenges.

Create an outline

“…the answer is not in the damn blank page – it’s in the days or years before and you have to dredge it up – exhume the past again …”
– John Geddes
Now that you have come up with the themes of your essay, you’ll need to flesh out some of the content. For each of the main points you want to convey, come up with evidence to back up your idea. Again, try not to pass judgment on what you come up with at this point. There is time to edit later.
Show, don’t tell is an oft repeated token of advice for writers that applies to your personal statement. A good story can pull in the reader (remember, they’re reading lots of these) and make your personal statement memorable, far more than a mere list of accomplishments and personal traits. This anecdote should illustrate the themes you came up with while brainstorming. It does not need to be heroic, grandiose or even necessarily medical. These experiences may stem from work you talk about elsewhere in your application such as your experience volunteering with a healthcare outreach project. Make sure you do more than just reiterate what you have already said in your list of activities. My application included a story was related to experiences in my high school math and science classes – and not the “I fell in love with science and medicine in freshman biology” kind, but the “I was bored to tears” kind. You story does not need to be a “I went to a third world country and saved people” tale. Something a little unexpected can be more engaging.
One cautionary note about stories: You need to be able to talk about it calmly and coherently. All contents of your personal statement are fair game for your interviewers. If you are going to discuss something that is particularly emotional for you – such as the death of a family member – be sure you can talk about it without breaking down in tears. If you do end up crying, you certainly won’t be the first person to become emotional during an interview, but try to avoid something if it is too sensitive.

You can’t edit a blank page

If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you’ll only have to throw away the first three pages.
– William Campbell Gault
Working with the ideas you’ve brainstormed, just get started. Like with brainstorming, setting a timer or a word count goal can help keep you focused and motivated. Writing anything is better than writing nothing at all, as once you have something down you can start getting feedback and doing some editing. My personal statement for residency went through about a dozen drafts, but I was really happy with the final product.

Maybe someone else said it better?

“I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself.”
― Marlene Dietrich
Still feeling stuck? Consider a quote can act as a springboard to start your writing, getting you over that blank-page hump. It can help place emphasis on your ideas and make an essay more interesting to read. In addition to appropriately accrediting the quote, be sure to look up the source of the quote. Even if it is the perfect, pithy phrase that elegantly illustrates your theme, I’d avoid it if the source is particularly controversial. Also, if it’s from a book, you might want to actually read the book or at least the cliff notes as you can certainly be asked about it. Let’s just say I learned that one the hard way. . .
Writing a personal statement can feel like the last great hurdle to your application. Recognize that writing a quality personal statement is a process and give it the time it deserves. Ready. Set. Write!

M
Megan Riddle, MD PhD, is a psychiatry resident at the University of Washington. She is a graduate of the Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri...