Some excellent references:
Tysinger, James 1999. Resumes and personal statements for health professionals, Galen Press.
Iserson, Kenneth V. 2004. Get Into Medical School: A guide for the perplexed, Galen Press, See 'personal essays', a discussion of the personal statement with examples in Chapter 13.
Jackson, Evelyn W. and Bardo, Harold R. 1987. Write For Success: Preparing a successful professional school application, National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions, Inc., Champaign, IL., although this source is somewhat old, the examples and analysis of the examples by readers are excellent in showing how much of what a person writes can reflect the writer.
What Is a personal statement?
A personal statement is a narrative in which the writer chooses a theme or thesis to relate aspects of himself or herself to the admissions committee, as a required part of the application process to medical school or other health professional program. Since most personal statements are "open" and do not specify topics, a major challenge to the writer is to select the topics you cover within the theme, while remembering that you cannot cover everything about yourself.
The personal statement is not a resume that tells others what you have done (honors, awards, activities, etc.). The personal statement should give the reader a sense of who you are and demonstrate why you want to go into medicine. Rather than saying your attributes, traits, and skills, write so the reader comes to these conclusions based on what you have done. Let your actions speak for you. To do this, you may choose to describe the experiences and events that shaped your personality, values, and goals. The personal statement can enable the writer to make a positive first impression, to relate past experiences, to present future goals, to describe special attributes, to demonstrate the applicant's match for the profession, to present personal values, and to reveal how your interest in the career developed. You may include stories and autobiographical items, but the personal statement is not an autobiography. Your statement cannot be comprehensive, but it should include specifics and personal anecdotes, usually built around the theme that you have selected. The personal statement should demonstrate to the reader that you are an excellent applicant, not by saying who you are, but by demonstrating who you are. Be careful not to use your personal statement just to repeat lists of items found elsewhere in your application. If your GPA and MCAT scores are marginal, what you write here may make the difference whether or not you get an interview. Keep in mind that medical school admissions officers are looking for evidence that you will be able to succeed in medical school and that you have the motivation and characteristics to be happy and successful as a physician.
Your AMCAS (or AACOMAS) personal comments essay allows one very full page, single-line spaced. In addition, you will be required to submit a personal statement to the Missouri State University Pre-medical Committee as a part of your application packet. Your Missouri State University personal statement is required to be at least one page in length, but no longer than two pages. The personal statement required by the Missouri State University Pre-medical Committee is not completely "open" and suggests that you reflect on your interest in medicine as a career, be biographical, and provide relevant information about your achievements. At the end you should include a statement about where you see your future, i.e. where or how you see yourself in ten years. These specific suggestions might be consistent with what you plan to write for AMCAS or AACOMAS, but you may have to consider writing two different personal statements, one version for each group. The remaining suggestions in this document apply more specifically to writing your "open" AMCAS or AACOMAS statements. Part of a medical school's evaluation of your personal statement often involves the choices of content that the applicant puts in to the personal statement. Shorter and more specific "closed statements" are required as a part of many secondary applications. These should also be written with care.
The personal statement is the place to be positive and constructive - no excuses for anything, no explanations for shortcomings, and no complaints about events in the past. If you provide explanations that have some negative context, emphasize and demonstrate what you have learned from that particular situation. There is a thin line between explanations and excuses. Correspondingly, the personal statement is not the place to re-list all of your accomplishments. You may choose to relate several accomplishments only as they serve to reinforce your theme.
Writing a personal statement, sometimes referred to as a personal essay if a theme is specified, is often the most difficult part of the application process. Never approach writing a personal statement without understanding its purpose in the admission process. That purpose is to learn about you, your character, your attitudes, your values, your motivation, your knowledge, and your priorities. Many applicants find the task of writing a personal statement difficult because they don't recognize their unique talents and do not like marketing themselves as a person. "The key to writing a good personal statement is to be honest, but not shy, about trumpeting your virtues" (Iserson, 1999). The most common mistake made by applicants is to underestimate the role of the personal statement in the admission process. The impression it makes can be an "accept" or "reject" factor by admissions committees. At the least, it may not help you, but it can hurt you. You cannot afford to come across as pompous or tactless. Admission officers who read these statements are very perceptive. Your personal statement reveals your character more clearly than other application materials.
Many applicants wait too long to begin their essays and fail to edit them over a period of time. Grammar and spelling are important as is writing style. Editing over a period of time usually results in improvements in content and writing style, even when the grammar and spelling are acceptable. Several universities require pre-medical students to begin writing their essays in the freshman year of college, and to routinely edit the essay after each semester. Unless you are an accomplished writer, you cannot afford to wait until a week or two before it is due. The primary reason for an unpersuasive essay is that insufficient time has been invested to write it.
Common topics in personal statements include:
- Experiences that motivated you toward medicine
- Influences and experiences of family and friends
- Influences of work, service, and extracurricular activities
- Long term goals and their bases in life experiences
- Personal philosophy and why it developed the way it did
Some advice and pointers for applicants writing an open personal statement:
- Give yourself enough time for many revisions and rewrites over a period of time. Even after several rewrites you may decide to change the theme and form.
- Begin with an inventory of yourself:
- What is your greatest strength as an applicant to medical school?
- What are your other strengths?
- What relevant experiences have you had?
- What evidence or events illustrate your sincerity, your motivation, your abilities, and your strong personal attributes?
- How have you overcome weaknesses?
- What will be your theme that will tie your personal statement together?
- How will you begin in order to attract interest?
- Begin by reading as many "good" and "not-so-good" examples of personal statements in the references given above to get a feel for the challenge before you. After you read them, put them away and be careful not to mimic any particular approach. The personal statement has to be yours. Do refer to and utilize the advice given in these references. When advice differs, consider what overall considerations might be responsible for the different advice.
- Avoid services where you pay to have someone help you write your statement; these are expensive. You know yourself better than they do and the gimmicks they tend to suggest become too routine to be useful. Admissions officers who read hundreds of personal statements are usually quite savvy in recognizing professionally written statements. If they recognize yours as being professionally written, it can be a strong negative. Although the statement you write may be grammatically correct, there are usually enough to indicate that you are not a professional writer. If you still feel you need professional help and writing your personal statement you might try www.essayedge.com.
- Be honest and be yourself. The goal here is to present yourself as an applicant in the best possible light. Reading the personal statements of your peers is not recommended and will tend to discourage you. You cannot change who you are and the experiences you have had. It does matter how you have responded to your experiences and have learned from them, whether they were positive or negative.
- Decide what overall idea or theme in your personal statement will tie it all together. Begin with a forceful and original first sentence that serves to attract attention, but avoid being outlandish, bizarre, or flaky. Consider starting out by describing an exciting incident, using a provocative quotation, relating a personal story, or discussing the event that sparked your interest in medicine. If you choose a more traditional opening paragraph, make sure it sets the theme for what will follow. You are writing about yourself. Use, but do not overuse, the pronoun "I", and use active verbs rather than passive voice. Watch the use of superlatives without providing examples and evidence. Use simple sentences to make a point and avoid long, complex sentences..
- Capitalize on your uniqueness, but don't stray too far from the ordinary. An essay about a problem you solved or an obstacle that you have overcome can be appropriate.
- What events caused you to learn more about yourself?
- How have you matured as a result of your experiences?
- Demonstrate confidence, but do not boast. Use statements such as "I am..." rather than "I feel I am." Be careful of excessive verb constructions of the verb to be. Excessive usage is a good indication that you are not demonstrating what you say you are. Let your actions speak for words.
- Maintain paragraph structure. Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence.
- Limit repetition. The last paragraph should be a conclusion, not a summary of what was said earlier.
- Write all statements in a positive form. Avoid the word "not." Relate what you are, not what you are not. Be concise and omit needless words. Turn negative experiences into positive lessons.
- Avoid writing about medicine in general. Do not criticize other physicians or give advice on how medicine should change. Describe yourself and what you will offer to the profession.
- Avoid general, over-used statements such as:
- I have always wanted to become a doctor
- The human body fascinates me
- I want to help people
- Saying that you are interested in rural health or primary care medicine is no longer adequate without examples and demonstrations that show you really are interested.
- Be careful in committing yourself to any specialty of medicine, unless backed up with evidence. The fact is that most physicians in training change their minds several times before deciding on a particular specialty. An overcommitment to a particular specialty before entering medical school may tag you as being naive. Being consistent with the philosophy of the medical school and the kind of practitioners they want to produce can be important here.
- Don't use words or a vocabulary that the reader will probably have to look up in the dictionary to understand.
- Do not choose a theme that makes you seem immature or of questionable character.
- Be personal and specific. Avoid talking in the abstract or in generalities.
- Have others check your word usage, spelling, grammar, punctuation, paragraph structure, transitions, theme development, and writing style. After it has been polished, make sure your statement is submitted neat and error-free. Follow instructions for font size and margins. Do not leave a lot of white space at the end of your statement.
- If you are reapplying to medical school, emphasize what you have learned and have done since your last application. Make your original personal statement better, but make sure your rewritten statement is consistent with your earlier statement.
- Be careful in expounding your philosophy. Some philosophies have inconsistencies with the practice and goals of medicine. Admissions committees are interested in your personal motivation, not the prescriptions of your religious faith. Religion can be brought into consideration, but you must be careful not to use it offensively. Make sure you keep the emphasis of your personal statement on learning about you and not your religion.
- that as a practicing physician, it will be your responsibility to be culturally sensitive and open to patients of all religious faiths and economic levels. Be careful not to indicate anything that might be construed to suggest you are intolerant.
- the emphasis should be on the fact that you will be a physician who happens to be (fill in sex, race, religion, ethnicity), not a (fill in: sex, race, religion, ethnicity), who happens to be a physician.
- Avoid criticizing others in the medical profession. Applicants may think they can do a better job than others in the profession, but they cannot appreciate the demands of the job and the system that physicians must work under. Physicians may read your statement and become defensive when a member of their profession is criticized by someone who is not in medicine.
- If the essay is not open-ended and specifies the topics to be addressed, make sure you specifically address the questions that are asked. Secondary applications will often have sections that ask you to write responses to particular questions. Some schools require these responses to be in your own handwriting. Make sure what you write has been thought out carefully and your handwriting is reasonable. Specifying something in handwriting usually implies a cursive presentation, not a block letter presentation.
- Watch for common writing mistakes. Use everyday vocabulary. Avoid using the word "I" except for emphasis. Make sure your verbs agree with your nouns. Avoid contractions. Do not leave too much space blank at the end.
- When you are finished, have others read your statement and critique it. Include strangers who don't know you and would be unable to "fill in blanks." Eventually, if you ask enough people (and you should), expect that the advice you receive may differ. Analyze any criticism and try to figure out why a particular item bothered the reader. Particularly, pay attention if several readers question the same item. Only after your analysis, consider changing an item. Be open to suggestions, but in the end, this will be your statement, not theirs.
For more information:
Opportunities for critiques of personal statements are provided in BMS 494 (Senior Seminar in Cell and Molecular Biology). Pre-medical students and other pre-professional students are urged to enroll in BMS 494 in the second semester of their junior year; this is at the same time they are taking the MCAT. (DAT, OCAT, PCAT etc.) If you do not have 90 credit hours, course permission will be required.
For further guidance and help, you may also contact any of the following pre-medical advisors in the Biomedical Sciences Department:
Dr. Colette Witkowski* 417-836-5603, Professional Bldg., Room 404
Dr. Amanda Brodeur 417-836-5478, Professional Bldg., Room 352
Dr. Richard Garrad 417-836-5372, Professional Bldg., Room 345
Dr. Lyon Hough 417-836-6485, Professional Bldg., Room 409
Dr. Joshua Smith 417-836-5321, Professional Bldg., Room 333
Dr. Jianjie Wang 417-836-6140, Professional Bldg., Room 339
Mr. Joseph Williams 417-836-6782, Professional Bldg., Room 347
* indicates current member of the Pre-medical Committee
Department of Biomedical Sciences
Missouri State University
Springfield, Missouri 65897
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.