The Personal Statement

How to write your medical school admissions essay.

Medical School Personal Statement

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Personal characteristics not found in other parts of the application. AMCAS limits the “Work/Activities” section to 15 experiences.
  4. 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:

  • Empathy
  • Dedication
  • Leadership
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Loyalty and Duty
  • Confidence
  • Humility
  • Sincerity
  • Altruistic

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).


Outlining

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.

 

Writing

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

Don’t

  • Use acronyms or technical jargon.
  • Include controversial topics.
  • Use vague statements without supporting evidence.
  • Plagiarize or use false statements.
  • Summarize your resume or application.

Do

  • 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.

Examples

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.

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