There are several written parts to the medical school application but the central component—and the one in which applicants have the most open space to convey their past experiences and future goals—is the personal statement. In the AMCAS application the prompt for the personal statement is:
“Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.”
Prompts in the other applications (TMDSAS and AACOMAS) are similar. The space allotted in the AMCAS application is 5300 characters, including spaces, which is approximately one single-spaced page. In that short amount of space you must articulate clearly your reasons for wanting a career in medicine. Your medical school personal statement should be a convincing piece of prose: through your writing you need to convey your excitement about your chosen profession, along with evidence that you’ve tested the profession through clinical experiences.
I have read and helped applicants refine their personal statements for 25 years. To write the most effective possible statement adhere to these basic principles:
Draw in the reader: The personal statement should have both immediacy—drawing in the reader instantly—and big-picture goals. It should help the reader understand what you’ve done to learn about the medical profession and convey your broad interests and what you eventually hope to accomplish as a physician. The first paragraph is critical in getting the reader’s attention: make it compelling. Use specificity and visual images to grab the reader from the first sentence.
Choose content wisely: Applicants often have difficulty deciding what to include in the personal statement, especially given the space constraint. It’s imperative that applicants reflect on the experiences that have shaped their goal of becoming a physician—include in the statement those that are most relevant. Think carefully about your experiences and choose wisely the ones you include in your statement. Provide reflection—help the reader understand what you’ve learned from the experiences you opt to include in the personal statement.
Show and don’t tell: Good writing consists of showing and not telling. Writing “I am compassionate” does not convince the reader of your compassion. It is far more effective to demonstrate your compassion by describing an experience in which you showed compassion to another individual; this technique allows you to create a visual image and show your compassion in action, thereby convincing the reader that you are compassionate.
Convey what you know: Admission committees want to know that you’ve tested the medical profession and that your goals are well-informed and realistic. Show through your writing that you’ve amassed experiences that have taught you about the realities of the medical profession. Describe how/why your clinical experiences have confirmed your interest in the medical profession.
Be logical. I often read drafts of statements that are hard to follow. This obviously doesn’t help the reader piece together your story/path to medicine. Be logical in your personal statement so that readers can clearly understand your trajectory to medicine. Don’t make readers refer to the activity section of the application to piece together different parts of your story. It’s your responsibility to write a flowing piece of prose that adds up to a cogent whole and that educates the reader about you and your goals—and how you developed those goals based on your past experiences.
Keep a journal: For applicants who are a year or two removed from writing the personal statement it’s wise to keep a journal of your clinical experiences. It’s not only useful when you begin to write the statement—your reflections about your experiences with patients can be helpful to draw upon when you start drafting your statement—but it is also beneficial to process what you see in your clinical experiences by writing about them.
A blog post by Dr. Sunny Nakae, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, gives excellent advice to applicants about what to strive for in the personal statement.
I have given numerous presentations on writing the personal statement to both past students and at national conferences. To help applicants, I have distilled my approach into a Personal Statement Worksheet that I share with clients. The worksheet helps applicants figure out how to write about their experiences in the most effective way, while also clarifying for them the most important experiences to include. If you want help with your medical school personal statement, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Liza Thompson, Expert Medical School Admissions Consulting