Death, taxes and personal statements; three things that are unavoidable in your career in medicine. Personal statements are tough — it’s challenging to talk about yourself in a positive light without sounding cliché or arrogant. The personal statement is also stressful because it’s the one part of the application you have control over until the very second you hit “submit”. It wasn’t until I became a member of the admissions committee at my medical school that I really understood what made a powerful personal statement. So, while I can’t help you with the death or the taxes part of life, I can help you with the personal statement. Here are some tips that can help your personal statement shine:
1. Don’t be afraid to get personal
If I had a nickel for every time I have read a personal statement that started with “I want to be a doctor because I want to help people” I would, well, have a considerable number of nickels. Everybody applying to medical school wants to care for others…that’s kind of the point. As an admissions officer committee member, I want to know what personal experiences have lead YOU want to care for others. I have had many students in the past worry that they will make their essay too personal and it will turn off their readers. However, personal stories grab the reader’s attention and hold it, because it is something they haven’t read before.
Keep in mind that “personal” just means unique to you; your story does not have to be a close relative battling illness or a great personal hardship. Writing about your family pediatrician who has cared for you and your family for 21 years with grace and empathy can be just as meaningful.
2. Be sure to relate the story back to medicine
While using a personal story makes for a much more compelling read, remember that this isn’t your memoirs, it is a medical school personal statement. Use the story to tell the reader how it led you to a volunteer or research experience, how it taught you how to empathize with others or persevere through challenges, and how it eventually led you to apply for medical school.
3. Don’t repeat your CV
The quickest way to get a reader to tune out is including in your personal statement a list of all your activities and accomplishments. That is what the “experiences” section of the AMCAS is for. Your personal statement should illuminate your most meaningful experiences and tell your story. Pick 2-3 experiences/ activities and explain how they shaped you and your path to medicine.
4. Less is more
Just because there is a character limit does not mean that you have to reach it. There are no bonus points for hitting 5300 characters exactly. Committee members typically read around 100 personal statements each application cycle, and sometimes up 20 in one sitting. If you start to get overly wordy, they might start skimming and miss the important points of your essay. The perfect length essay is one that gets your points across (and demonstrates that you are articulate) in as few words as possible.
5. Address potential red flags
The personal statement is a great opportunity to address any aspects of your application that may be considered a “red flag”. If you have gaps in your education or a poor semester don’t be afraid to explain it in the personal statement. There is no use in hiding it, as the committee member is already well aware that it’s there. Do not try to justify it or make excuses, but rather acknowledge the shortcoming and describe how you have grown from the experience and how it will make you a better medical student and person moving forward.
I have often heard the expression that a personal statement cannot “make” an application but it can certainly “break” one. That may be true to an extent, but I think it underestimates the impact that a powerful personal statement can have on an application. And while the personal statement can be frustrating and challenging to write, remember that it is important and it’s under your control.