Writing the Personal Statement for Health Professions Applications
The personal statement gives you the opportunity to present a compelling snapshot of who you are and perhaps why you want to be a doctor. Use your personal statement to say what others can’t. The personal statement can be a tricky genre to master. On the one hand, you want to give the admissions committee a sense of your personality and who you are. On the other hand, you must sound focused and professional, which sounds like it might impede your ability to capture your personality.
But this does not have to be the case. What you need to do is figure out how to say what drives you to want to become a healthcare professional in as specific a way as possible. The more specific you can be, the more the admissions committee will feel as if they have a sense of who you are.
You don’t need gimmicks, jokes, artificial drama, or hyperbole to express who you are or why you would make a good medical student or doctor. All you need are carefully selected details that you can craft into a unique and compelling story that conveys a sense of purpose and motivation.
What Makes a Good Personal Statement?
- There is no exact template for an effective personal statement. Often, however, strong personal statements combine a concise description of a personal experience with reflection on how this experience either led the writer to pursue medicine or indicates the writer’s character or commitment.
- Good personal statements often have a strong sense of narrative. This does not mean that they read like short stories, though they can relate a few scenes or anecdotes from your life. They have a strong sense of narrative, rather, in how they convey the writer’s sense of dedication to medicine. Strong personal statements often give readers an idea of how applicants see their experiences as leading to the decision to pursue medicine.
How to Get Started
The personal statement is an exercise in self-reflection. Questions to consider:
- Who are you? I am driven to… I have learned to… I believe…
- What are your most passionate interests or concerns? What problem(s) most occupy your thinking and your efforts?
- How did you develop those interests? (Not just the story, but what drives you.)
- What errors or regrets have taught you something important about yourself?
- When does time disappear for you? What does this tell you about your passions, your values?
- What ideas, books, courses, events have had a profound impact on you? How so?
- To what extent do your current commitments reflect your most strongly held values?
- When have you changed? Consider yourself before and after; what does this change mean?
- How do your interests and who you are relate to your goals in medical school and as a doctor?
Start a “shoebox”; a place to keep random notes for your personal statement; be ready to write at any time. Review these items occasionally; let them tell you more about what you want your personal statement to say. Start writing drafts, experiments; you will know when a paragraph begins to gel.
A Suggested Writing Process
Everyone writes differently, so these are potential strategies rather than rules.
- Make a list of some of your most defining experiences – extracurricular activities, specific classes, volunteer work, research, hobbies, etc. Try not to include overly personal experiences (breakups, trouble with parents, illnesses in the family, and so on). It’s difficult to write about such things without being sentimental or cliché. You want experiences in which you did something and had to make a choice.
- From this list, try to select an experience that particularly demonstrates your intellectual curiosity, your dedication to service, your composure under pressure, your leadership ability, or any other personal trait that you think is particularly relevant to your case that you would make a good doctor or medical student.
- Start writing a draft based on this experience. You want to be specific, but don’t get bogged down with an abundance of anecdotes or minutiae. Try to use your draft to craft a succinct story that demonstrates your character and your motivations.
- Set the draft aside for some time (a number of days or weeks), and then revisit it with fresh eyes. Be as honest with yourself as you can be: What works in this draft? What doesn’t work? What sounds cliché or unspecific? Would a reader who doesn’t know me at all get a sense of my personal character and dedication?
- Revise, revise, revise: tighten the structure, add new things to make your point clearer, take away sentences or sections that now seem unnecessary, use the active voice as much as possible, and anything else that needs to be done. If what you have just doesn’t seem to be coming together, do not be afraid to start over.
- Solicit feedback from a couple of trusted readers and revise again based on the suggestions that you find most useful. Don’t solicit feedback from too many people though – too many responses can be overwhelming.
- Edit your work for grammatical mistakes, typos, clumsy repetitions, and so on. Make your prose impeccable before you submit your statement. Asking help from other readers can be especially helpful with editing, as sometimes it gets difficult to read your work with fresh eyes.
Things to Do
- Use the experience that you describe to tell a story of personal progress, particularly progress towards your commitment to medicine.
- Write with active verbs as much as possible.
- Strive for concision.
- Sound humble but also confident.
Things Not to Do – Common Pitfalls
- Don’t talk in hyperbolic terms about how passionate you are. Everyone applying to medical school can say they are passionate. Instead, show your readers something you have done that indicates your passion.
- Don’t adopt an overly confessional or sentimental tone. You need to sound professional.
- Don’t treat the personal statement like a piece of creative writing.
- Don’t put your resume in narrative form.
- Don’t use jargon, abbreviations, slang, etc.
- Don’t use too many qualifiers: very, quite, rather, really, interesting…
- Don’t write in overly flowery language that you would normally never use.
- Don’t include famous quotations. If you must quote, use something that shows significant knowledge.
- Don’t write about yourself in an overly glorifying or overly self-effacing manner.
What to Remember
- They are read by non-specialists, so write for an intelligent non-medical audience.
- Actions sometimes speaks louder than words so give examples of experiences rather than describing them.
- All information must be accurate – don’t pad, but don’t be falsely modest either.
- The personal statement, in part, serves as a test of your communication skills. How well you write it is as important as the content.
- AAMC: 7 Tips for Writing your AMCAS Personal Statement
- Graduate Admission Essays: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why, Donald Asher, Ten Speed Press
- On Writing Well, William Zinsser
- Elements of Style, Strunk and White, Macmillan
- Article: 2 Med School Essays that Admissions Officers Loved