• Charith Ratnayake

The Personal Statement

The daunting personal statement. It can send shivers down whitewalkers’ spines. This is one of the most important sections of a medical school application and possibly the most important part of the primary application. It takes time, energy, and, frequent coffee breaks. Writing a strong personal statement is vital. It shows a side of your application that admission committees don’t see in the rest of your application. So, without further ado, here is my breakdown of the personal statement.

#1: Have a Purpose

No, this isn’t me asking AMCAS why I need a personal statement (common thought though). It’s stressing the main question: Why do you want to go to medical school? One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received about my application is to have a theme or an “it” factor to your application, specifically in your personal statement. Think of a quality you want to highlight, an experience you need to tell, a story you must share, etc. There are a lot of ways to go about this (see below for ideas) but find something you’re passionate about. For example, I chose to focus on a quality: perseverance. I chose it because I had failed multiple times early in undergrad and fought to improve my GPA, showing an upward trend. The purpose of my essay was to show I had experienced, overcame, and improved because of the hardships in my life. Not everything in your personal statement needs to tie into the theme, but if someone read your statement, they should be able to understand you a little more beyond the rest of your application.

#2: Choose a Blueprint

Since we’ve talked about the why, let’s work on structuring a personal statement. From the opening paragraph to your conclusion, it’s important to have a flow to your essay. Your points should create logical links to the next points. Students have found different ways to approach this challenge. Let’s break some of them down.

The first structure is the chronological story. Beginning with an epiphany about your medical aspirations and continuing with your journey through medicine, this essay reads very much like a biography. To write this essay, brainstorm a few stories that you can elaborate on. Ideas include the following: what jump started your decision to pursue medicine, an experience in the medical field, and a person who inspired you. I’ve seen beautiful essays written about their inspiring family physician, an experience as a hospice volunteer, and a book about medicine. The story you choose does not matter as much as how passionate and how much you can elaborate on those experiences. This structure offers you a chance to show your personality through actions. It’s a pure form of “show don’t tell” that can be impactful and unique, leaving a lasting impact on the reader. However, there are a few pitfalls that poor essays stumble into. First, it’s easy to only tell a story and forget to explain your experience. As your recount your journey, you don’t need to include every experience. It is much better to choose two or three experiences that you can connect to each other and elaborate on. Applicants also tend to regurgitate their resume. Do not do this. Admissions have already seen and read your primary application. Overall, a chronological story can be a powerful structure to show your unique personality.

Another essay structure is one you know all too well: five-paragraph essay. It has all the classics: thesis, body paragraph, and conclusion. Writing this essay begins with a thesis. This is where brainstorming is key. Create a thesis that you want to highlight and can elaborate with supporting evidence. It should be something you’re passionate about. Once you’ve created your thesis, it’s time to develop your body paragraphs. There’s no correct way to organize these paragraphs, so you’ll have freedom to choose to present your evidence in any order. However, I would focus on how your flow between your paragraphs. You should not jump from a paragraph about your experience in leading a club team to your work in a medical outreach program unless you can link them well. Finally, the conclusion should wrap everything up. Don’t introduce any new evidence here. Rather, this is an area to reflect on your thesis and hammer it home. In your entire essay, almost every sentence should be in service for your thesis. That will help you efficiently use your character limit and avoid a rambling paragraph. Overall, the five-paragraph essay is your tool to convince the admissions council why your reason to attend medical school is unique and powerful.

There are many structures you could use for your personal statement. You could use a story as an introduction into your thesis statement and follow up with evidence and conclusion. You could use a story as evidence in your five-paragraph essay. An organized structure matters as much as the content you write.

#3: Building the Masterpiece(s)

Now that you’ve got an idea of the blueprints you can use, it’s time to build your essay. My second favorite piece of advice for the essay is to just start writing. I felt that I needed to write a perfect essay the first time around, so it took me way too long to begin writing. Even though I just began, I would delete sentences repeatedly. I never wrote an essay with this mindset. Once I let go of that feeling, I wrote all sorts of drafts. I spent a couple days brainstorming topics I could write on. Then I spent a few days just writing, not worrying about word count, vocabulary, or syntax. At the end, I had five different first drafts with unique themes. Each had a purpose that I elaborated on. Now, all I had was the insurmountable task of choosing one or two essays to focus on.

If you write multiple essays, choosing the one to move forward with is one of the most important decision you can make. There’s no algorithm or formula, but there are a couple of ways to choose. First, choose the one that you believe you are the most passionate about or can elaborate the most on. This will help you create a more impactful essay after multiple revisions. Second, ask friends, family, or respected persons to help choose an essay. You ultimately have the final say, but their insight could be invaluable when you make your decision.

Once you write multiple essays, it’s time to do the most intensive portion of personal statement: revisions. There’s only one steadfast guideline for revisions: show your personal statement to a diverse group of people and ask them to revise it or give you feedback. Some people are great about advice on themes and theses, whereas others are excellent at syntax and grammar. Ask your friends, professors, colleagues, family, and professional resources if available to you. They all have a unique perspective that could give you insight. Your pre-med advisor could be a great resource, as they have specific experience in helping students get into medical school. You don’t need a hundred people to review your essay, but you should have different eyeballs look at it. Ask them how you can restructure your essay, changes the words you use, and how to improve for your next revision. You should not incorporate every suggestion. Use your judgment when writing your next draft.

You can revise your drafts as many times as you want. However, there is a point of diminishing returns and even detrimental revisions. Applicants may revise so much that they lose what made their essay unique. They may incorporate so many revisions that their essay becomes disjointed, seemingly written by multiple people. Make sure your voice is still heard through your work.

#4: Final Tips and Thoughts

Alright. We’ve discussed major points above, so let’s focus on the details. Below are some tips that I learned from others and my own experiences. First, start early. You don’t need your personal statement till you’re ready to submit your primary, but starting it early gives you ample time to write and receive multiple rounds of feedback. I believe it’s a good idea to start writing in March or April. You’ll have a couple weeks to write, then several weeks to revise. Second, take breaks from writing and revision. Some of my best revisions and writing were done after two days off from writing. This tip works best when joined with the first one; you’ll have ample time to have breaks and review. Third, draw inspiration from other people. Ask them why you would be a good doctor and what qualities they admire about you. Maybe they know what motivated you to pursue medicine. Use this information to inspire your themes, purpose, and stories for your personal statement. Fourth, avoid copying an example personal statement from your friends or online. This is a common issue when beginning to plan your essay. Although themes and structures overlap, your essay should be authentic to you.

Your personal statement is an impactful, unique and rich part of your primary application. This is the first personal area admission committees see on your application other than your extracurricular activities. A strong personal statement is essential to stand out from the other applicants, and I believe you have it in you. Your story is one-of-a-kind; you just have to tell it in your voice. Good luck on your personal statement, and, as always, you can email us if you have any questions or comments!

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