The personal statement is the centerpiece of a medical school application. The space given, which varies from 5300 (AMCAS) to 5000 (TMDSAS) to 4500 (AACOMAS) characters, represents an opportunity to tell your “story” to the medical schools. The prompts in each application are similar:
AMCAS: “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.”
TMDSAS: “Explain your motivation to seek a career in medicine. Be sure to include the value of your experiences that prepare you to be a physician.”
AACOMAS: No prompt given.
The personal statement should accomplish two main tasks, the “why” and the “what” of your decision to pursue a career in medicine. It should:
- Convey WHY you want to be a doctor.
- Convey WHAT you have done to learn about and test your interest in the medical profession.
In addition, an outstanding statement will subtly weave in information about your values, personal attributes, and strengths, thereby allowing the reader to get a sense of you. The personal statement should also help the reader see what you would add to a medical school class, and ultimately the medical profession.
If written well and if convincing, the personal statement makes the reader—usually a member of the admissions committee—eager to meet you in person and engage in conversation with you. Thus, the personal statement can help you land an interview, which is one step closer to what all medical school applicants want: an acceptance.
Brainstorming Content: How to Get Started
Your overarching goal in the personal statement should be to write a convincing piece of prose describing your path to medicine. You need to think deeply about what has motivated you to become a physician, and you must convey that in the statement. Readers are interested in facts, and a series of questions might help you brainstorm your content:
- When did you start thinking about medicine and why?
- After you became interested in the profession, what did you do to ensure that it was the right fit for you? How did you follow your curiosity to test your interest in the profession?
- What did you learn from your clinical experiences about patient care, the doctor-patient relationship, the needs of underserved patients, or the like?
- How and why did these experiences reinforce your interest in medicine and/or refine your goals?
- If you engaged in research, how did it help you know that you wanted a career in medicine? Or the converse could be true: if you engaged in research and decided it was too far removed from working with patients, how/why did this convince you to focus on clinical care?
- What did you study in college and why did you choose that focus? Committee members are interested in your intellectual interests – this helps them get to know you better and understand what drives you.
- What personal traits do you have that will enable you to be a good medical student and ultimately an outstanding physician? Make a list of these traits — it can be useful when writing the statement.
- How have you USED the above traits in your experiences? For example, think about a time when you conveyed your compassion to another person, especially in a clinical setting. If you can tie your traits to actual experiences, you can subtly weave your personal qualities into the statement.Make an Outline to Guide Your Writing
While it seems elementary, it’s often helpful to create a simple outline to guide the writing of the personal statement. But first you have to decide on the content you’re including. Use the above questions to help you refine your content and make decisions about what to include in your statement—focus on the experiences which CONFIRMED your interest in medicine. Then make an outline to help shape the form of the statement. Once you have an outline, the statement becomes easier to visualize and then write.
The First Paragraph: Make it Shine
The first paragraph is critical to grabbing the reader’s attention. Remember, readers don’t have much time. As such, it’s essential that you immediately capture the reader’s focus. It often helps to use visual images in the opening paragraph. Paint a picture of yourself in some setting that’s relevant to your decision to pursue a career in medicine. Use an experience which helped confirm your interest in medicine to convey to readers why you’ve decided to become a doctor. Consider using the present tense for this paragraph, which will make your writing more immediate for the reader.
Show and Do NOT Tell
Good writing consists of showing and not telling. Instead of stating outright the personal traits you have that will allow you to be successful as a physician, you should think about how you can demonstrate these traits through the experiences you’ve actually had. For example, it would be ineffective to write in a statement, “I am compassionate” since you’re not actually proving that you have that trait. However, if you show a time when you put your compassion into action you will convince the reader that you embody that trait.
Clarity is Essential
Admissions committee members juggle competing demands, from seeing patients, to teaching, to conducting research, to fulfilling administrative duties. They serve on the admissions committee as one of many demanding responsibilities, and they review a plethora of applications. As such, the personal statement is read exceedingly fast, in approximately 2-3 minutes. To make sure the reader understands your story clearly and convincingly, it is absolutely essential that the statement is clear, direct, engaging, and convincing. Use relatively simple language and syntax to get your message across. The personal statement is not a place to wax poetic or be philosophical; rather, it should be a clear explanation of your trajectory to a career in medicine. Remember, it’s your responsibility to help admissions committees understand you better through the personal statement. Make it easy to follow your story. Clarity, however, need not be boring. The statement should be interesting to read and, as mentioned above, the opening paragraph should be riveting, which will grab the reader’s attention and compel him or her to keep reading.
Different Formats Work
There are many ways to write a fantastic personal statement; there is not one particular form that works best. Some people take a thematic approach (for example, you might think about what unifies the activities in which you have been engaged and use that as the unifying principle/theme for the statement) while others prefer a more linear, chronological approach to telling their story. Still others might use a mixture of techniques to capture their trajectory to medicine, using a blend of present tense with reverse chronological events to capture their journey to a career in medicine. No matter what, your statement should have YOUR voice and perfectly capture your path to medicine and your essence.
What Good Statements Have In Common
Whatever form you choose to use, good statements have several unifying traits. After you have written a first draft, ask yourself if your statement has the following essential elements:
- An opening paragraph that compels the reader to keep going. Remember, statements are read very quickly — does yours draw the reader in immediately? Have you used visual images to help the reader picture you in a clinical setting?
- A narrative that helps the reader understand what drives/motivates you. Are your personal traits coming through? Do readers get a glimpse of your values?
- Information that conveys CLEARLY and PRECISELY why you want to be a doctor. Does your statement answer the question “why medicine”?
- Good flow between paragraphs. Does your statement have good transitions between paragraphs and add up to a cogent whole? Make sure your transitions work well to create a seamless piece of prose.
- Is it convincing? Have you made the reader want to have a conversation with you and convinced the reader that you should be a member of their incoming class?
- Excitement and optimism about medicine. The statement should palpate with energy about your chosen path. This is not the place to criticize the medical profession – you may have ideas about how to improve the profession but remember your audience: doctors. Don’t profess to know how to do things better than they do when you’ve yet to even join the profession.
An outstanding conclusion.
The conclusion is the last paragraph. As such it’s important, since it’s what readers are left with. It should summarize the statement while having emotional resonance. A good conclusion reflects on previous aspects of the statement (your experiences) and what has been learned through these experiences, while projecting into the future what you hope to accomplish and the types of patients you wish to impact.
If you have accomplished the above tasks you will have written an outstanding personal statement.
Writing a statement takes time. It involves a process of thinking, drafting, and refining. Be patient, and understand that it’s challenging to write about yourself. Be prepared to write multiple drafts and allow enough time to do so. Writing the personal statement should not be rushed but approached with patience and humility. In the end, if you put in the hard work required to write a great statement, you will be proud of the piece of prose that you construct to tell your personal story of your path to medicine.
Liza Thompson has advised medical school applicants since 1993, and has read thousands of personal statements and helped countless applicants refine their statements. She has amassed extensive experience with the personal statement and loves helping applicants distill their story into a convincing piece of prose. The former director of both the Johns Hopkins and Goucher Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Programs, Liza is the founder of Thompson Advising and now works as a medical school admissions consultant.
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