Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)
Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:
- Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
- Think of events or situations that highlight these qualities
Then, you should write about one of these events or situations in a way that demonstrates these qualities and captures the reader’s attention.
1. List Your Greatest Qualities
To answer the personal statement prompt more easily, focus again on the question of what you want admissions committees to know about you beyond your numbers and achievements.
I’m not talking about your hobbies (e.g., “I followed Taylor Swift to every concert she performed in the US during this past year”), although you could certainly point to aspects of your lifestyle in your essay to make your point.
Instead, I’m talking about which of your qualities–character, personality traits, attitudes–you want to demonstrate. Examples include:
- Extraordinary compassion
- Willingness to learn
- Great listening skills
- And so on
If you have difficulty thinking of your great qualities (many students do), ask family members or close friends what you’re good at and why they like you; that will take care of things :)
Finally, choose the two or three qualities that you want to focus on in your personal statement. Let’s use compassion and knowledge-seeking as the foundational qualities of an original example for this article.
(Note: I cannot overstate how important it is to think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your personal statement before choosing a situation or event to write about. Students who decide on an event or situation first usually struggle to fit in their qualities within the confines of their story. On the other hand, students who choose the qualities they want to convey first are easily able to demonstrate them because the event or situation they settle on naturally highlights these qualities.)
2. When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?
Now that I’m off my soapbox and you’ve chosen qualities to highlight, it’s time to list any event(s) or setting(s) where you’ve demonstrated them.
I should explicitly mention that this event or setting doesn't need to come from a clinical (e.g., shadowing a physician, interacting with a young adult patient at a cancer center, working with children in an international clinic) or research experience (e.g., making a finding in cancer research), although it’s OK if it involves an extracurricular activity directly related to medicine.
In fact, since most students start their essays by describing clinical or research experiences, starting off with something else–travel (e.g., a camping trip in Yellowstone), volunteering (e.g., building homes in New Orleans), family (e.g., spending time with and learning from your elderly and ill grandmother back home in New Hampshire), work (e.g., helping out at your parents’ donut shop)–will make you immediately stand out.
Let’s start with the example of building homes in New Orleans. Why? Because we could easily demonstrate compassion and knowledge-seeking through this experience. Notice how the qualities we select can choose the story for us?
3. Describe Your Event as a Story
Here’s where the art of writing a great personal statement really comes in.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays, most of which are very cliché or dry. Therefore, it’s critical that you stand out by engaging the reader from the very beginning.
By far the best way to capture admissions officers early is by developing a story at the start of your essay about the event or situation you chose in Step 2.
In a previous article, I wrote about the three critical elements for writing a great admissions essay story: 1) a compelling character, 2) a relatable plot, and 3) authenticity)
However, I want to go one step beyond that article and provide an actual example of how the same event can be written in a routine vs. compelling way. That way, you can avoid the common pitfalls of typical personal statements and write a standout one.
One of my most eye-opening experiences came when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans during the summer months of 2014. Up to that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.
New Orleans was hot and humid during the summer months of 2014–no surprise there. However, for a native Oregonian like me, waking up to 90-degree and 85% humidity days initially seemed like too much to bear. That was until I reflected on the fact that my temporary discomfort was minute in contrast to the destruction of communities and emotional pounding experienced by the people of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people was as much about lifting spirits as making physical improvements.
Many people may feel the Routine example is pretty good. Upon closer look, however, it seems that:
- The focus is as much on New Orleanians as the applicant
- The story is not particularly relatable (unless the reader had also volunteered there)
- There isn’t much support for the writer actually being touched by the people there
On the other hand, the Compelling example:
- Keeps the spotlight on the applicant throughout (e.g., references being from Oregon, discusses her reflections, interacting with Jermaine)
- Has a relatable plot (e.g., temporary discomfort, changing perspectives)
- Is authentic (e.g., provides an example of how she lifted spirits)
(You can find yet another example of a typical vs. standout admissions essay introduction to engage readers in this earlier post.)
4. Demonstrate Your Qualities
(Note: This section applies to all aspects of your essay.)
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given for writing personal statements, but further guidance or examples are rarely provided to demonstrate what it looks like when done well.
This is unfortunate because the best way to understand how standout personal statements demonstrate qualities through an engaging story is by reading two examples of the same situation: one that “tells” about a quality, and another that “shows” a quality.
Let’s take a look at the last sentence of each story example I provided in the previous section to better understand this distinction.
Telling (from Routine story)
“…it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.”
Showing (from Compelling story)
“…actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people…”
Notice how the second example demonstrates compassion without ever mentioning the word "compassion" (hence no bolded words)?
Moreover, the same sentence demonstrates knowledge-seeking: “Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals...”)
That’s what you’re going for.
Think about it. Who do you consider to be more kind:
- A person who says, “I’m really nice!”; or
- A person who you've seen do nice things for others?
Clearly, the second person will be seen as more kind, even if there's no difference between their levels of kindness.
Therefore, by demonstrating your qualities, you will look better to admissions committees, and also seem more authentic.
In this post, I will show you the 6 step process to write a personal statement for medical school that is impactful and persuasive.
Your AMCAS personal statement is the single most important piece of your med school application because it is your opportunity to consciously control how you are perceived by the med school admissions committee.
By the time you begin filling out your application, your MCAT and GPA will be unchangeable and cold numbers alone might not convince an admissions committee that you are an exemplary applicant prepared to thrive in a rigorous medical program. And unlike a statement of purpose for graduate school or residency, consider your med school personal statement a “written interview” that gives you the opportunity to show why you are a unique and promising individual within a massive field of applicants.
Stuck on your med school personal statement?
Here’s the tough part: The prompt for the medical school application essay — aka the AMCAS personal statement — (which says, in part, “Use this section to compose a personal essay explaining hwy you selected the field of medicine, what motivates you to learn more about medicine…”) is so open-ended that the vast majority of pre-med students have no idea how to approach the medical school personal statement with a strategy that will create persuasive results.
Many medical school applicants rely on tired techniques in their admission essay, like chronological storytelling: “I was born, I went to school and got good grades, now I want to be a doctor” (SNOOZE) and they write their essay with no structure, theme or imagination.
A personal statement for medical school written without a clear theme and structure won’t pull your reader in; it will bore them and push them away.
It’s easy to get stuck after you complete your first med school personal statement draft because you might not be confident that your approach to the personal statement for medical school is good because you don’t have a successful model to follow.
Below is a video I made with a student who wanted to know if his med school personal statement was “good enough.”
Get our medical school personal statement samples.
How to write an outstanding med school personal statement
Follow the steps below as you begin writing your medical school admissions essay and you’ll many of the common pitfalls and stumbling points experienced by applicants. This advice has helped guide hundreds of students write compelling and successful med school personal statements that got them admitted to medical school.
Step 1. Map out the entire structure of your paper to ensure that your med school personal statement follows a clear theme. Every anecdote you include or reflection you make should clearly fit into your strategic framework and remind your reader what your motivations are.
Step 2. Excite your reader with life-changing stories from your past — ones that inspired your passions or gave you direction in life — and discuss how these incidents changed you as a person. These riveting stories will become the focus of your medical school personal statement even if they are not medically related. Big hint: Any type of story can work as long as it demonstrates personal growth and motivation.
Step 3. Use interesting writing techniques like simile and metaphor to “show” rather than “tell” information to your reader. Plain, unimaginative writing will BORE your reader.
Step 4. Avoid repetitive statements that don’t add anything new to your ideas and waste valuable character space. Be concise!
Step 5. The AMCAS application electronically limits the length of your AMCAS personal statement to 5300 characters. Spaces, punctuation marks and paragraph breaks all count as characters.
Step 6. Model your essay after past successful med school personal statements. You are much more likely to create a successful personal statement for medical school if you approach it with writing strategies that have worked for applicants in the past. Use sample essays, sample outlines and writing instructions. This strategy will reduce the heartache and stress that many pre-meds experience while writing their med school personal statements because this approach shows you exactly how to layout your medical school admissions essay with content that will be engaging and memorable.
Sample Personal Statements make your life easier
You absolutely must have example essays, like our medical school personal statements.
Sample personal statements will help you get a massive head start because you’ll see not only the format, but many examples of what other students have written. One thing to be aware of is that some student samples may not fit your situation specifically, so you want to look for some samples that match you and your experiences, as well as your MCAT score and GPA.
That’s why I created Personal Statement Secrets. Personal Statement Secrets includes 25 example personal statements, and also include step-by-step instructions on how to write the personal statement. There are also several personal statement templatesincluded that will show you how to easily and persuasively structure your ideas.
I also really like the video critiques of several essays that I have done with previous students that are included in personal statement secrets. You’ll find the conversation with the students really enlightening, as I go through line by line of each student essay and help them understand how to make their essay more persuasive and more impactful on the admissions committee.
A friend of mine was recently with an admissions committee member for a University of California system medical school and he told her just how important the personal statement is to University of California medical schools.
He said, “Most students don’t realize just how much emphasis we, in the admissions committee, place on the content of the personal statement. The help that you’re giving to students is extremely important and you’re right on track.”
Get our sample medical school personal statements.
So, now you know the main tricks on how to write a personal statement for medical school admissions. Good luck!
This article was originally posted at PersonalStatementSecrets.com by Don Osborne.
Write a personal statement that gives you the edge!
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Filed Under: Medical School Personal Statement, Posts - Personal Statement