How to Write a Great Personal Statement for Your Medical School Application
It’s April and definitely time to start writing your personal statement for your AMCAS application. If you wonder: “How can I write a statement that will get me an interview at the medical school of my dreams?” More than 50,000 people are doing it too.
Only forty percent of applicants will be admitted somewhere. Although far too many people who apply don’t have the grades and scores they need, it often comes down to poor self-presentation in their personal statements.
As someone who has worked with hundreds of students both before and after getting into medical school, I’ve seen just how much your personal statement has to be exactly that: it needs to show “who you are” and “what is important to you.”
The best personal statements are clearly and concisely written. They include a powerful introduction that shows what motivates you to be a physician, a memorable story showing “who you are and what’s important to you,” and a conclusion that will make you stand out from the thousands of other applicants to the medical schools you are interested in.
Even if your grades and scores are sufficient to get you a secondary without a review of your personal statement, the AMCAS essay will likely be an essential part of admissions offices’ overall review of your applications once you have received and responded to your secondaries.
Medical schools are looking for students from increasingly diverse backgrounds. At the same time, particularly for America’s best-known programs, many applicants come from well-educated families. They are well placed and often well prepared to apply there due to where they attended college and the traditions of advanced professional accomplishment they grew up with.
So, whatever your background, how can you stand out?
Firstly, and most importantly, open your essay with an eye-catching first sentence that leads into a story about yourself. Don’t just rattle off a list of facts and figures. Too many applicants do this — and hurt themselves badly. Lists of facts and figures don’t say very much about you. They repeat information contained in your resume. They don’t help application judges either connect with you or see how you are a unique candidate that they want on campus. Both of these are necessary for you to get to the interview stage.
Whatever you say, remember that lists of facts and figures are boring.
Motivations and feelings are interesting.
Motivations and feelings are also essential in working with patients. Proving you can see and empathize with patients’ emotions, feelings and challenges, shows medical school admissions committee members you can understand why the people you will care for someday act and make the choices they do. Showing that you can do this will prove you have the empathy needed to effectively work with your future patients on doing difficult things and making scary choices that can benefit their long-term health.
Telling a captivating story about how the events in your life helped you become the smart, charismatic, capable, caring, socially aware kind of person the school wants in its student body, is often your best chance to stand out. It is also a great opportunity to show that you are capable of, and interested in, personal and professional growth.
That said, your story should take a reasonably serious tone. People in medicine rightly feel what they do is serious business and so an overly humorous tone may make it seem you have a cavalier attitude toward the important work you wish to learn to do. If you can inject humor once or twice in your essay, do so, but be sure to ask a second reader if they think you’ve gone too far.
Because most candidates haven’t published first authored papers in Cell or the NEJM, built programs that provide healthcare in a new way, or had health issues that drive their interest in medicine, they must talk about the events, challenges and opportunities in their lives in ways that capture someone’s attention. More importantly, they need to do it in the first sentence, or at most, two.
So, opening your personal statement by saying: “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor because I think physicians are cool.” isn’t likely to help you much.
Instead, describe events in a way that will help you stand out: “I was hospitalized for three weeks after a serious car accident when I was ten years old. The physicians who cared for me contributed a lot to my health and well-being today.” or “For many years my grandmother, my family, and her healthcare team have fought a long, slow and emotionally difficult battle against her Alzheimer’s Disease.” Sharing events and experiences like this will give people an image or emotion to connect with right away.
By doing this you will draw them further into your essay rather than being dismissed as “emotionless”” or “uninteresting.” This is the very last thing you want to seem to be.
People in the medical school admissions process are looking for leaders with unique experiences and drive who have inspired change or proven their worth in their labs, their classrooms, their communities and others’ too. So, describing your experiences in a way that shows the path that made them possible and what you learned from them, or the difficult life circumstances you’ve overcome that make you want to be a physician and give you a unique capacity to connect with patients, will show that you can add to the overall diversity, leadership, social awareness, strength of purpose, and clarity of vision that medical schools want in their students.
After your eye-catching first sentence, tell a story in your personal statement. Talk about how your process of recovery from that car accident made you want to emulate the various physicians who helped you. Speak about the desire to be a physician in the first paragraph and then let your story show your desire and capability to become one.
Describe some of the clinical, volunteer, or laboratory experiences that honed your interest in medicine. Show how you realized that conditions (which you have personal experience of, or exposure to) need leaders to help people manage them in themselves and their family members. Show how the work you’ve done has taught you that these complicated and often-chronic issues also need physician-researchers who will find the treatments and lead in building the social care programs needed to improve outcomes for people living with them.
If experiences you had in the basic science lab or doing human subjects research fired a particular interest for you, talk about how that happened. Doing so will help you connect to the numerous members of admissions committees who do basic and clinical research.
It’s okay to admit some of your experiences haven’t worked well. Showing you have failed and learned from the rough spots on the path to your goals will give you more depth in the eyes of many committee members. Be careful not to excuse poor performance unless you truly learned things from negative experiences that will make you a better physician. This kind of depth, and the fact that you’ve overcome challenges, will give the admissions committee confidence that you are able to handle the ups and downs of medical school — and medicine in general.
If you are transitioning to medicine from another career, tell something of the path that you’ve taken to this choice. Speak of the skills and capabilities you have from your earlier work and how these will help you be an effective, empathetic, energized physician.
Your essay also needs a strong conclusion. You might close it on the importance to you of being a physician by saying something like:
“Medicine is finding solutions to many of today’s biggest challenges. I want to be part of that process to help people like me — or my grandmother — have the best possible outcomes. If admitted there, I would be honored to learn from — and add my experiences to — the incredible community of faculty and students on your campus. In so doing I will become a physician who is ready, willing, and well-able to help our increasingly diverse patient population live happy, productive, healthy lives.”
This kind of paragraph wraps up your story and shows your interest in medicine is motivated by a strong desire to contribute to knowledge, overall health, and improving patient outcomes — things medical schools value greatly today.
In writing your essay, the value of expressiveness and authenticity cannot be overstated. If you write like a robot, people will think you are one. If you seem like someone who really wants to go to medical school, grow, and become a physician ready and excited to work on healthcare teams, help patients and solve some of today’s biggest health problems, you are far likelier to get interviews. With good interviews (and, of course, good scores, grades, experiences and luck) you will be admitted to programs where you can learn, grow and take steps toward being the great physician you want to be.