Your personal statement is your chance to set you apart as an applicant, and gives you the opportunity to paint a picture of yourself outside of your scores and ECs. Your LORs give the AdComs a view of how others see you, but your personal statement shows how you see yourself. You will want to put a lot of time into crafting your story, so it’s a good idea to start thinking about it well before you submit your application.
The personal statement is a largely open-topic space for you to answer a single question: Use the space available to explain why you want to go to medical school.
There are an infinite ways you can tell this story, and how you do will explain a lot about your story, your motivations, your communication skills, and the type of person you are. When I was preparing to write mine, I looked up a few published volumes of personal statements, such as the US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT: Medical School Essays That Made A Difference, which is linked in the resources chapter.
I like that particular volume because it also lists the applicant statistics, and where they applied, interviewed, and were accepted, thus giving you the opportunity to deduce the impact their personal statement had on their application’s success. I also attached my own personal statement at the end of this chapter, with commentary on why I believe it was successful.
After reading about a hundred statements, there were some common themes I noticed in styles:
-Resume style: Applicant gives a short biography of meaningful activities and events, how those prepared them for the medical field
(Ex: when I was a kindergarten teaching assistant, I learned the importance of interpersonal relations as I comforted a child who was away from his mother for the first time, I developed long lasting relationships with the kids, and was often invited to their homes for dinner. This indicates that people find me likeable and that I have the interpersonal skills necessary to succeed in medicine. Later, when I worked in a nursing home, I realized that just by sitting and listening to a patient express their concerns, I could help to ease their uncertainties about their future treatments.)
-Artistic style: Applicant compares the medical profession to one specific extracurricular, showing how the same talents they’ve have developed in their activity will benefit them as a physician
(Ex: A sculptor is like a surgeon, and the fine motor coordination I’ve learned through my hobby of marble sculpting has aided me in dissections.)
I’ve also seen dance, music, and theatre compared to medicine. I used this style in my secondary essays, for the “what makes you unique” type questions. I chose to use this style so I could draw special attention to an extracurricular that held a lot of meaning for me (visual arts.) Those essays are attached at the end of the next chapter.
-Life Changing Event style: Focus on one specific event, which shaped the applicant’s interest in medicine.
(Ex: I was in a car accident, and really admired the doctor who saved the my mother’s life. I was a lifeguard, saved a child from drowning, and felt drawn to the feeling of fulfillment that came with it. I went to Africa, saw world suffering, and wanted to dedicate life to changing it through medicine. And so on. )
I used this style for my personal statement, and talked about how a shadowing experience shaped my perspective on some things that need to be fixed with the system, then discussed my dedication to changing said issues.
My AMCAS personal statement was about a full single-spaced page, 2500 characters. It’s generally a good idea to have somebody look over your personal statement before you submit it, but be wary of having too many editors. In the end, you still want your personal statement to sound like you, and it should definitely have a notable flow to it. When too many people make large changes to your essay, it can end up as a Frankenstein’s monster of writing styles, a patchwork story with no flow. So after all your edits are said and done, have somebody you know who is an experienced writer (a literature professor, for example) look over it to make sure you haven’t lost your voice or flow among the edits.
When it comes to actually sitting down and doing the writing, I’ve noticed that the most successful essays have a few things in common. Regardless of the writing style, they don’t directly state their attributes. For example, saying “I am a compassionate person” is blunt, even though it gets the point across. However, it’s not nearly as powerful as saying “I rushed to the scene of the accident, scanning the area to make sure that no pedestrians were hurt as I ran to the vehicle.” The second statement not only gives the reader a sense of the compassionate attributes of the applicant, but also illustrates selflessness, a desire to help others medically, and the ability to keep one’s head cool when faced with chaos.
Example: My Personal Statement
I could see the pain in Dr. B’s face as she pleaded with our patient.
“Honey, you really need to start using protection.”
She gently explained to our first patient of the day, a young woman with hypothyroidism who (after missing several months of her medication suspected that she might be pregnant) that her unborn child would be at severe risk for mental retardation and other developmental disorders.
While heartbreaking, I’ve come to realize that this kind of scenario is all too common, and this is why I want to work with preventative medicine. During my time shadowing, I have found that I greatly admire the doctors’ ability to communicate with their patients. After taking a detailed patient history, the doctors were able to not only draw conclusions about their patients’ conditions, but also explain it in a unique way. I observed a dialogue, a conversation about how the patient’s health is not just a static state. Rather, the human body is a complex, dynamic machine, which the patients themselves have the most power to influence. People would walk out of clinic empowered with new information: that their lifestyle matters, and through proper care and keeping of their own bodies, they can both improve their present conditions, and lower their risk of future disease.
Throughout my shadowing experience, it has become apparent to me that there is a vast disconnect between the information in the scientific literature and the ability of the general population to access and use that information. While the young woman in Dr. B’s clinic was thankfully found to be not pregnant, most of the risk of the situation could have been eliminated with a more complete sexual education, and a better understanding about the risks of skipping her prescribed medication.
It is a physician’s duty to heal the sick and suffering, and I plan to do this. However, I also feel a strong commitment to prevent what suffering I can through advocating health awareness programs, improving public education in the biological sciences, and providing cost effective resources for low income families to improve their health and lifestyles. The work I’ve done presenting to at-risk Biology students at local High Schools has shown me that a little information can go a long way to changing a lifestyle, and just a short presentation about bacterial STDs can go far to illustrate a previously “uninteresting” chapter on prokaryotes.
As I mentioned earlier, medicine should not be a monologue: it’s a conversation. Between doctor and patient, patient and family, and all of the above with their shared communities. And I plan to have a voice in this conversation.
Commentary: My Personal Statement
I believe that one of the factors that most influenced my application’s success was my personal statement. Before writing it, I worked hard to study volumes of published personal statements, so I could learn what worked and what didn’t.
The most important thing you can do with your personal statement is to accurately represent you, and that’s what I tried to do with mine. I’m very passionate about the role of education in healthcare, and I strongly believe that a more complete public health education could eliminate many of the cases of preventable disease that are common in America. In using my volunteering and shadowing experiences to illustrate this, I was able to draw attention to my resume as well as my interests in medicine, without being over the top in restating my experiences.
I decided to open with a rather bold line, and talked about sexual protection. It was a risk, but it fit in well with the rest of my theme, and I wanted to make sure that if the AdCom wasn’t paying attention when they picked up my essay, they would be after the second line. I wouldn’t recommend writing a bold or shocking opening as a rule, however. You don’t want to try and emotionally manipulate the reader (especially if it’s a shocking statement about something in your own life), and it absolutely must be appropriate to the rest of your essay. The statement about sexual protection worked for my essay because unsafe sex is a huge public health concern. I mention that I’m passionate about preventive medicine, and sexual education is a part of that.
I’ve seen a lot of essays that say things like “I demonstrated my empathy when I worked in a geriatric clinic, and helped to contact one of the patient’s estranged children.” It gets the point across, but it’s blunt. I used softer language to show my awareness of the emotions of the doctor and patient, by mentioning that I could see the doctor’s distress and the patient’s fear.
One of the things you will learn about in medical school is the importance of communicating clearly with patients. I drew attention to my awareness of this issue, and suggested means to improve it. It’s always a good idea to show that you are not only aware of problems in healthcare, but are also willing to help build a solution.
AdComs want to see that you don’t idealize medicine. You want to be a doctor more than anything else, yes. But you don’t have unrealistic expectations of the profession. It’s physically and emotionally demanding, and you have to understand some of those difficulties before you matriculate. They don’t want a bright-eyed first year dropping out as soon as he or she realizes that not everybody actually wants to be healed.
Be careful not to swing to the opposite extreme, however. Don’t go on a rant about how broken medicine is, and how you’re going to be the one to fix it. It’s best to pick a middle ground: you are aware of the issues, and you want to work on them in a realistic and balanced way.