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Five Simple Tips for a Better Personal Statement

The personal statement is, for many, one of the most dreaded aspects of the medical school application. It can be quite intimidating to be given a blank space so large, with the expectation that you will use it to answer a simple yet complex question: “Why do you want to go to medical school?” This question can be difficult to answer in the form of a personal statement because it is so open-ended; even students who “know” the answer for themselves may feel worried that they are not structuring the personal statement correctly, or are not saying everything that they feel admissions committees want to see. There is also the issue of deficiencies or weaknesses elsewhere in the application; the personal statement is supposed to be a platform for addressing these, but many students struggle to write about these openly and tie this into the rest of the personal statement.
While these concerns are valid, I would like to help alleviate some of them by focusing on the advantages of a personal statement and offer some simple, tangible advice for writing your statement. The amount of blank space given for your essay can be concerning, but try to see it as an opportunity; it is your one chance, prior to the interview, to really be yourself and allow the admissions committee to hear your voice. Most of the AMCAS/ACOMAS application is highly structured and offers little room for variation; by contrast, the personal statement is whatever you want it to be. I encourage you to be creative, but mostly be yourself; the admissions committee should read it and gain an understanding of who you are beyond your metrics and checked boxes. Because of this, try not to see it as just another thing you have to do; realize that it is an essential part of your application and can be a big advantage for the medical schools to see you as a whole person.
There are many available resources about writing in general and personal statements in particular; I have synthesized some of the most important concepts that I have discovered in the five suggestions given. The points listed below will help you organize, get started, and polish your essay until it is perfect. Due to the amount of time and effort this can take, I recommend leaving yourself plenty of time to work on it. Ideally, start working on your personal statement (gathering ideas and outlining it) a year before you submit it. If you are applying sooner than that, don’t worry; it doesn’t have to take that long to do it. In general, though, your essay will be much stronger if you allow yourself a long, relaxed amount of time to write and edit it.
1. Know Thyself
This piece of advice sounds simple, but is probably the hardest of the five points because it requires constant attention, self-reflection, and honesty. It will be impossible to write an authentic, convincing essay about your motivations to study medicine if you do not, at your core, know who you are. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What has shaped your personality? How do you differ from other applicants? What will you be able to offer to your medical school, and what will you be able to offer society as a medical student, resident, and doctor? These questions are just some of the many that you should start asking yourself. Knowing yourself better can be accomplished many ways; journaling is a simple activity that can help clarify many of your thoughts and beliefs. In addition, I recommend considering self-assessment activities, such as personality inventories and strengths assessments.
2. Tell Your Story
The personal statement is usually a narrative; it should be logically organized, with clear writing and sensible structure. A helpful starting point might be to think of it as a five-paragraph essay; one introduction, three main points, and a conclusion. It should also include transitions, varied sentence structure, and a good vocabulary. Let me emphasize, however, that it needs to be your story. Don’t try to make your experience sound like something it isn’t; honesty and authenticity should be held in higher esteem than any other quality in your statement. Work at using the right words, but don’t rely on a thesaurus to make it showy or sound smart, as admissions committees will see right through this. The narrative should be internally consistent, as well – don’t rely too heavily on previous knowledge or information (besides what is in your application already), and make sure to include only what is relevant to your story (see #4 below).
3. Short and Sweet
Less is often more, and it certainly can be true for personal statements as well. When you first start writing, pay no attention to length; just work on getting all the ideas that you might want to include onto the page. This may end up being several pages, which you should be able to work down to a shorter amount. Make your goal one page, single spaced – the AMCAS/ACOMAS applications will actually allow a little more than that, but there is no requirement to use all the space. In fact, if you can make all of your points in less space, it will be to your advantage, since the people reading your application will be more likely to read it without losing interest or just scan it in the first place. As you edit, try to remove extraneous words (for example, remove every “that” or “the” which is not absolutely essential, avoid the word “very”) and continually ask yourself if there is a more succinct way to make your point clear (e.g. using the active voice instead of passive). Having someone else read over your essay will also really help pare it down to just the essentials (see #5).
4. Connect the Dots
This is related to the concept of narrative discussed in point #2, but this piece of advice has more to do with creating a central theme and sticking to it. There are two ways to do this: the first is to find a theme first, and then use examples that fit the theme. For example, your theme might be that you enjoy working with youth; you can then pick what you want to talk about that relates to this theme. Remember, you should avoid repeating information that is found elsewhere in your application, when possible, but it is OK to clarify or expound upon details discussed in another part of the application. The second way to work this idea (which is probably more common) is to map out the examples/stories that you want to use, and find a common thread that connects them. This becomes your theme, which will be the overarching concept that ties the story together. Whichever method you use, your goal should be to include only information that connects to the central theme. This can be a good solution to tying in weaknesses in your application; your theme might relate to your determination, which allowed you to overcome whatever problem(s) that led to the weakness in your application. Another theme could be that of a “turning point” in your life, which you might use to explain poor grades one year which you then improved. These are just two examples; I encourage you to be creative in choosing your theme – it can be general or specific – and working to talk about your life experiences and personality in a way that puts the theme in the context of a career in medicine.
5. Revise, Revise, Revise
This may be the most important of the five. In short, you simply cannot write a great essay on the first try. Ideally, you will get most of your good thoughts down in one sitting (though this isn’t likely either), but once you do have your main ideas written, it will take time and effort to make them into a connected, grammatically sound, and convincing narrative. Your spelling and grammar should be perfect; admissions committees will usually adhere to this standard as well, because there is no excuse for not having this correct. My two main suggestions for efficient revision are as follows: first, taking a break from writing the personal statement. When you feel stuck and/or feel that it is almost ready, put it aside for as long as you can afford – at minimum, one week. After this time, read it with a fresh perspective. My second suggestion is to have several different people read it, ideally with different perspectives. Try to have someone who doesn’t know you as well read it to see if your voice is clear; have closer friends/family read it to see if it sounds like you. A writing lab/editor/English teacher can also be handy for any stray grammatical/stylistic edits. A variety of backgrounds and perspectives in your editors will ultimately strengthen the piece more than any one editor could.
There are many other bits of advice or suggestions that I could add to this list, but these five will get you well on your way to writing a great personal statement. It’s not as hard as you think – good luck!
Make sure to also check out SDN’s personal statement webinar, Mapping Your Life: Personal Statement Brainstorming Workshop, on YouTube!