Having reviewed thousands of personal statements over the years, admissions committee chairman John T. Pham, DO, has come up with his own rule of thumb.
“When I look at a personal statement, if it doesn’t catch my attention in the first paragraph, then I’m not interested in reading further,” says Dr. Pham, who is the vice chair of the department of family medicine at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest in Lebanon, Oregon.
The personal statement provides an important glimpse of a candidate’s noncognitive traits such as self-awareness, empathy, passion and fortitude. A vivid well-written essay conveying a medical school or residency program applicant’s motivations and aspirations can be a deciding factor in inviting that candidate in for an interview.
“The personal statement is really the only way you can make a memorable mark on admission committee members before you meet them,” says Benjamin K. Frederick, MD, a third-year radiology resident in Columbia, Missouri, who runs an essay-editing service called Edityour.net.
Dr. Pham advises students to have their personal statements critiqued before submitting them to medical schools or residency programs. Applicants should seek feedback on their draft essays from their classmates, physician mentors, college guidance counselors, and friends or family members with strong editorial skills, he says.
Some students take this process a step further by seeking professional help with their statements. Dr. Pham is not opposed to students’ enlisting help from private admissions consultants and essay editors as long as the personal statement reflects the applicant’s own words, insights and experiences.
But Adam Hoverman, DO, who has reviewed many personal statements to assess med school and residency applicants, is concerned that heavily edited, overly polished essays do not accurately portray a candidate’s communication skills.
“Being able to organize your thoughts and write effectively is vital for transmitting knowledge as a physician,” says Dr. Hoverman, an assistant professor of family medicine and global health at the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine in Yakima, Washington. “An essay that reflects someone else’s skill set is misleading.”
But those who provide essay-editing services argue that they help future physicians become better, more reflective communicators. If it weren’t for their help, they maintain, many talented, compassionate individuals would not gain entrance to medical school or competitive residencies.
Medical school candidates often produce personal statements that are superficial and clichéd, says Linda Abraham, the founder of Accepted.com, an admissions consulting and essay-editing firm.
“The applicants will write in very generic terms about how they want to help people, and you don’t see where this comes from,” she says. “They don’t give their background story, and they don’t provide examples.”
When I look at a personal statement, if it doesn’t catch my attention in the first paragraph, then I’m not interested in reading further.
Dr. Frederick notes that many students try to cram too much information into their personal statements, which end up reading like CVs or résumés.
“The personal statement should be a narrative about an experience that led to personal growth in the pursuit of a medical career,” he says.
Vagueness and a lack of illustrative stories are the death knell of many personal statements, says medical school admissions consultant Cynthia Lewis, PhD.
“What I tell my applicants is that only one half of one sentence in a paragraph should be ‘This is what I did.’ The rest needs to be a reflection on why you did something,” says Dr. Lewis, founder of Lewis Associates. “What did you get out of it? How did it change you? How do you think differently about the world as a result of this experience?”
Telling a story
When Dr. Pham reads a personal statement, he wants to be wowed by the applicant’s story. Maybe the candidate decided to pursue medicine because of experiences in the Peace Corps, hardships overcome, a community service project, a family member’s battle with a disease or any other life-changing situation.
“Does the personal statement engage me from the get-go?” Dr. Pham asks himself. “Does it have a good story line and tell me a lot about the person and whether he or she is really dedicated to medicine?”
Being able to organize your thoughts and write effectively is vital for transmitting knowledge as a physician.
Applicants to osteopathic medical school are limited to 4,500 characters (including spaces), roughly 700 words, for their personal statement, so it must be concise and to the point. Dr. Lewis recommends that candidates divide their personal statements into three components. The first part, she says, should be a one-paragraph “uniqueness statement”—something significant the applicant has accomplished, a passionate interest or hobby, or a challenging or deeply moving experience.
She recalls one client who had several stories to choose from. When he was studying abroad in Spain, his wallet was stolen while he was traveling in England and he had to navigate Europe without his passport or any other ID. He also learned how to play flamenco guitar that year.
“You need to pick one key experience or interest and talk about it,” Dr. Lewis says. “This will say a lot about you, what you care about and how you think.”
The second part of the personal statement should describe the applicant’s journey to medicine, she says. The candidate should explain in a couple of paragraphs what initiated his or her interest in becoming a physician, what has sustained that ambition over time, and why he or she feels ready to apply to medical school.
Taking considerable time to self-reflect and write a compelling personal statement is a valuable exercise.
The final part of the essay should explore the candidate’s interest in osteopathic medicine. “Don’t just say, ‘I shadowed an osteopathic physician,’ ” urges Dr. Lewis. “Explain what you learned from the experience and how you might incorporate osteopathic philosophy into your future practice.
“If you are applying to osteopathic medical schools, the people evaluating your application need to see that you have an understanding of the osteopathic approach to care.”
However, warns Dr. Pham, applicants should not try to address all of the osteopathic tenets in the essay, which would seem forced and insincere.
“Applicants should not tell us what they think we want to hear,” he insists. “We know that many students apply to both DO and MD schools. But if a student is strictly applying to osteopathic schools, it’s important to tell us why.”
Unlike personal statements for osteopathic medical school, which are submitted with the application through AACOMAS, those for residency can be customized to the specialty and program, as ERAS permits. But that doesn’t make them any easier to write, says Kim M. Peck, the director of academic and career guidance at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MSUCOM) in East Lansing.
Residency candidates need to tell the story of how they came to be interested in a particular specialty and what their long-term career goals are, according to Peck. “I advise students to be specific,” she says. “Don’t just say, for instance, that you are good with your hands and would make a great surgeon. Give an example of how you came to realize that, including details. Did an attending compliment you when you assisted with suturing? Was it an interaction with a hospitalized patient that helped you make up your mind?”
MSUCOM’s website includes a list of 14 questions students should ask themselves before they begin writing their first draft, such as “Which course work and clinical experiences have you enjoyed the most and why?” and “What is unique about you and your experiences?”
The process of writing an effective personal statement may take months, not just days or weeks, Peck says.
“Medical students are so busy doing rotations, taking shelf exams, and jumping through all of the hoops that are part of the residency process that they often don’t have time to think about themselves and where they’re going,” she observes. “Taking considerable time to self-reflect and write a compelling personal statement is a valuable exercise that helps ensure that students are making sound, thoughtful career decisions.”
Medical communication: An overlooked skill?
Googling “medical personal statement editing” yields more than 590,000 links to services and informational websites.
“Evidently, these services have arisen because of demand: Students feel they have not been adequately prepared as premeds to write persuasive personal essays,” says Dr. Hoverman, who stresses that educators should be teaching aspiring physicians communication skills alongside biology and chemistry.
“The ability to frame your thoughts in a manner that is productive for a peer, a patient or the community is substantially relevant in all aspects of health care,” he says.
Premeds interested in educating themselves can take electives such as creative writing classes and advanced speech classes. Medical students may consider pursuing writing opportunities on their own, such as starting a blog or writing research papers or articles for medical publications.
Picking up communication skills will help aspiring physicians do much more than write better personal statements, Dr. Hoverman notes.
“Organizing clinical teams, developing treatment plans, engaging in health advocacy—all of these things require physicians to be excellent communicators,” he says. “Consequently, a personal statement should genuinely reflect an applicant’s communication skills.”
Say the most with the fewest words possible…
What is the personal statement?
The personal statement is an essay that explains why you want to be a physician and what led to your ultimate decision to attend medical school. The personal statement is required by the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS), which are the centralized application processing centers for allopathic and osteopathic medical schools in the United States.
AMCAS limits the personal statement to 5300 characters, while AACOMAS limits the personal statement to only 4500 characters. Unlike many other application essays, applicants are not provided with a prompt. Therefore, there are unlimited possibilities as to the tone and subject matter of the essay of each individual applicant.
The personal statement is inserted to the applications via an online form field, and is read by admissions committees in plain text. As a result, there are limitations to formatting that is usually employed to provide emphasis to various parts of an essay.
Why is the personal statement important?
Over the years, medical school admissions committees have been able to use the personal statement to evaluate several characteristics of an applicant. The essay allows the admissions personnel to gain insight to the applicant’s character and make a holistic evaluation of the student. Some argue that the personal statement is a fundamental method of differentiating otherwise identical applicant profiles.
How are personal statements evaluated?
As with any professional practice that includes writing, there are several factors that are considered when evaluating personal statements, including:
- Writing ability and writing basics. As of 2014, there is no longer a writing section of the MCAT, which could cause more admissions committees to use the personal statement as an indicator of writing ability (or lack thereof). In any event, unrivaled scrutiny should be used to ensure that an applicant’s personal statement is free of errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. The presence of errors could lead admissions personnel to believe the applicant underestimates the importance or value of the application process.
- Motivation to practice medicine. If you haven’t considered why exactly you want to be a physician, you’re behind the curve. While it may be detrimental to your application to focus entirely on this topic, it should definitely be the central theme of the essay.
- Personal characteristics not found in other parts of the application. AMCAS limits the “Work/Activities” section to 15 experiences.
- Overall impression of the applicant.
Personal Statement Topics
Determining a topic for the personal statement is probably the most difficult part. Keep in mind, however, that there’s one central idea – medicine and how it relates to you. The personal statement is not like the other portions of the application process, many of which most applicants approach as a series of tasks to be completed to become a doctor. In contrast, think of the rest of the application as a multitude of parts that must be bound to one another by your essay.
Some example topics include:
- An overview of your academic life story that culminates with your profound conclusion to become a physician.
- A life-altering event or series of events that encouraged you to follow medicine.
- A mentor who’s impact lead you to choose healthcare.
- The various obstacles that you were forced to overcome in order to accomplish your goals of becoming a doctor.
Remember that the ultimate goal of your personal statement is to convey that you possess the appropriate character traits which are desirable attributes of a physician. These traits are qualitative, and although subject to personal opinion, are generally considered fundamental characteristics of a healthcare provider. While you shouldn’t mention them explicitly, your essay should leave the reader with an indication that these are core attributes of yourself. Such qualities include, but are not limited to:
- Loyalty and Duty
For those who are applying Early Decision, it would help to ensure the content of your personal statement correlate with the mission and values of the medical school to which you are applying. For example, if a particular school’s mission is to provide physicians to underserved areas of the state, it’s likely that a personal experience that relates to rural healthcare will make an impact on the reader. If the school’s mission is to provide physicians to its own state, talk about what drove you to seek an education and life at home (assuming home is the same state).
Once you have a topic in mind, create an outline of your essay. An outline will help to organize the ideas of your personal statement before you begin. This is the starting point for all major writing endeavors, because it provides a framework and structure. The result of starting with an outline should allow you to cohesively flow from one topic or subtopic to the next.
Before you begin your outline, determine the general structure of your essay. Many students may choose to opt for the 5-paragraph format, which is suitable for such writing. The opening paragraph should contain an interesting introduction to yourself and general theme of your personal statement. The next three paragraphs should be experiences or ideas that support the general theme and should include supporting arguments or evidence to support those. Below is a sample outline to help you start.
I. Introduction. Introduces a central theme or idea about what motivated you to pursue medicine, providing an overview of the supporting topics that follow.
II. Supporting Topic #1.
- A. Introduction sentence to the supporting topic that transitions easily from the introduction.
- B. Argument/Evidence #1.
- C. Argument/Evidence #2.
- D. Argument/Evidence #3.
- E. Transition sentence to supporting topic #2.
III. Supporting Topic #2.
IV. Supporting Topic #3.
V. Conclusion. Summarizes the relationships between the 3 supporting topics and provides the user with a conclusive thought of why you want to be a physician.
Once you have an outline, start writing. Follow your outline, and use well-formed transitional sentences to flow from one idea to the next. Make sure you vary your sentence structure a little – using “I” 1,000 times gets a bit tough to read.
John’s Hopkins Pre-Professional Advising recommends to refrain from the use prepositions such as “in conclusion” or “for instance”. (Note the misspelling of the word “fact” near the bottom of the page.) While their intentions are to emphasize the importance of brevity, you’ll find that excluding prepositional phrases and transitional words make essays difficult to follow. However, overuse of any word in an otherwise uninteresting literary work is likely to make the work seem dull.
Your choice of diction should be appropriate for your audience. What does that mean? Choose your words wisely. Your personal statement will be read by people that are likely to be educated, but almost guaranteed to be… bored. Therefore, the use of an extensive vocabulary may prove to be counterproductive to your efforts. Spend less time sifting through the thesaurus and more time trying to say the most with the fewest words possible.
Proofreading and Editing
Proofreading is arguably the most important part of writing any essay or academic paper. While proofreading, you should be checking for more than just errors in grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Now, you want to ensure that the reader, who knows nothing about you, can get a solid understanding of how you relate personally to what is on your application professionally.
Once you have completed your initial draft, put your essay away and forget about it. In one to two weeks, pick it up again and read it with fresh eyes. This will help you find mistakes or poor wording you might not have caught previously.
Next, have a friend or family member proofread it. Ask them to be brutal, pointing out any minor flaw they find. You’ll find it more efficient to keep a copy with you and actually hand it to them when you ask. Most people are well-intended, but helping you with an essay might not be very high on their priority list.
Once you’ve made the corrections that you and others have found, utilize the minds of the academics. Often, English professors are a brilliant resource when it comes to proofreading. Alternatively, most universities have a writing help center where undergraduate seniors or graduate students volunteer. For universities that have a premedical committee, it may prove beneficial to request a review from them as well.
Personal Statement Do’s and Don’ts
- Use acronyms or technical jargon.
- Include controversial topics.
- Use vague statements without supporting evidence.
- Plagiarize or use false statements.
- Summarize your resume or application.
- Balance pride with humility.
- Allow adequate time for multiple edits/revisions.
- Use clear and concise verbiage.
- Keep it personal.
- Use examples of events to support main topics.
- Highlight what makes you unique.
Ultimately, your personal statement should be a personal reflection of your decision to pursue a career in medicine. In the end, this essay could potentially make or break your chances for admission to medical school, so take care to recognize the severity of its impact. Furthermore, your personal statement is likely to be a source of questions by the admissions personnel if you are invited for an interview.
Medical College of Wisconsin – Sample Personal Statements (PDFs) – 15 personal statements deemed noteworthy by the Medical College of Wisconsin. Most of them are very well written and concise.
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine – Sample Personal Statements – A small group of personal statements collected and presented by the University of Pittsburgh SNMA Chapter.
Studential.com – Medical School Personal Statements – A large collection of medical school personal statements and essays. Each one of them is rated by users. There are tons of essays to sift through and many of them are second-rate.