The OMSAS autobiographical sketch is a challenging and time-consuming part of your application for medical schools in Ontario. While the section for US medical schools allows students to tell their story at length, the OMSAS autobiographical sketch must be very concise and downright surgical in its wording. But don’t worry—with some basic guidelines and principles in mind, you can ensure that your sketch stands out and improves your chances for getting into your dream MD program.
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Before diving into our tips let’s outline the basic structure and purpose of the OMSAS sketch. To start, it’s important to understand the ultimate reason for the sketch. If you’re familiar with the AMCAS system in the US, you’re likely aware of both the and Work and Activities sections, which are the main autobiographical portions of the application. For medical schools in Ontario, which utilize the province-specific OMSAS system, both of these sections are absent. Instead, students are asked to convey important personal details through the school-specific supplemental questions if they are available, your transcripts, and the autobiographical sketch.
The sketch provides a standardized outline of your academic and professional development since age 16. It’s structured as a list of up to 32 items organized into 7 categories:
- Formal Education
- Volunteer Activities
- Extracurricular Activities
- Awards and Accomplishments
Unless you’re a who’s applying later in life, your experiences and activities for this section should, fortunately, still be fairly fresh in your mind. r (OUAC) recommends initially approaching these categories and activities quite broadly—their advice is simply to “list all activities that will give the admission committees insight into who you are.” These activities can be structures and non-structured—i.e., undertaken in a formal organization in a specific timeframe, or informal and even self-directed. Structured activities might include things like volunteering for specific organizations or events, while non-structured activities might include things like hobbies or recreational activities.
One of the paradoxical aspects of the OMSAS sketch is its open-endedness. It invites you to really dig into your experiences to find what’s most meaningful, and for many students this lack of strict direction can feel like a burden, especially during such a busy period. However, narrowing down and refining the description of your experiences and activities so far will simply take time and a lot of attention. It's a bit of a grind, but if you block off enough time and employ some strategy, it can be a downright rewarding experience.
Just because you have 32 entries, does NOT mean that you have to fill up all 32 entries. Remember, the point of the sketch is to demonstrate the essential qualities that medical schools value, not provide a comprehensive index of every waking moment of the last 5-7 years. In your preparation for drafting your sketch, however, you should begin with quantity, and refine into quality.
As the OUAC recommends, a good first step is to create a spreadsheet or other such highly-organized document that you can populate with any and all activities you can think of having occurred since age 16.
Be comprehensive here—this is the raw lumber you’ll use to build your final sketch. As you list these activities, organize them into their appropriate category using the list above, and provide ample details about them to access later when you begin editing your sketch entries. Once you have a list of at least 15-20 such entries, begin focusing on those activities that have been most impactful. For instance, you’ll surely list your entire employment history, but if your first job at 16 was a paper route and only lasted a week, you may consider skipping this in favor of something more impactful and sizable in duration. You need to be able to provide some level of detail as to why an entry is meaningful, and things like a brief job you didn’t get anything out of would be better left aside.
Importantly, you must be clear and concise to demonstrate your excellent communication skills. The sketch section specifically requires you to limit each entry to 150 characters, which is not very much at all. Using an entry to describe your meditation practice or other hard-to-summarize activity within the limit may be challenging, but if you take your time and refine your entry, it can go a long way toward demonstrating your communication skills verbal abilities.
Other non-structured activities such as traveling, cultural experiences, or having special licenses or certificates make similar demands on language, and so balancing your formal structured entries with more nuanced non-structured activities will help illustrate your ability to effectively and engagingly present who you are to admissions committees.
For any activity, other than formal education and scholarships, you must provide a verifier. For structured activities this can be a supervisor, a coach, etc. and for non-structured activities these can be friends, family, neighbors, and even yourself.
Since the range of verifiers is so vast, reach out to potential verifiers as you draft your initial, unrefined entries to make sure these people are comfortable with you listing them for a specific activity or experience. As you begin deciding which entries to refine into your final sketch, be mindful not only of what a given verifier might say, but whether or not they can be relied upon to respond to a contact request from a medical school. If possible, select verifiers you know will provide additional detail on an entry as well. For instance, if you put down a store manager for an occupational entry but rarely interacted with that person directly, consider moving down the hierarchy a bit to a department or team manager with whom you spent more time. The temptation to try to include high-ranking verifiers may be strong, but what matters most is their reliability and ability to attest to your involvement in the activity. Hierarchy and status simply do not matter for verifiers.
Check out our video on the OMSAS Application for more tips and autobiographical sketch entries
Admissions committees in Ontario read so many sketches in a given application season that any whiff of insincerity or posturing will be detected as such. Part of Tip #1 is being artful and accurate in your language, but another part of this is speaking truthfully and not embellishing a given entry. If a given volunteering experience was a trying or even a letdown, don’t embellish it into some kind of life-altering transformation. Not only will your verifier likely not back that up, but the stink of dishonesty will come through to the people reading your sketch.
One of the skills experienced admissions committee members develop is the ability to piece together an actual, working picture of the student whose sketch they’re reading. Entries that stick out from the tone and character of their surrounding entries will almost always read as ill-fitting or even hypocritical. A smart tactic when considering how to present the details of an experience is to assume a kind of omniscience in your eventual reader—assume any atom of falsehood will be sensed, and carefully refine your language to avoid embellishment.
Similarly, don’t exaggerate your hobbies or other entries that will rely on self-verification. You may be tempted to list a marathon or two if you enjoy running, but admissions committees don’t care about your ultimate level of athleticism so much as the fact that you’re a disciplined person who’s mindful of their own health. In short, there’s often no need to embellish, so don’t bother attempting it.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
First is a simple formal education entry. Pay attention to how the dates are entered, and note also how the formal education is described quite clearly and concisely.
Consistency of formatting and language is important throughout the sketch, so be mindful of how likely unnatural certain conventions are—such as the year-month date format, and of using a forward slash instead of a comma for the location. Make sure to maintain uniformity: erratic punctuation may not automatically get your application chucked in the bin, but providing evidence that you have an eye for detail and organization will help you tremendously.
In this next example, notice how “Full time” is separated from “academic and summer term” by a semicolon. Additionally, note how this candidate has effectively and creatively used their 150-character limit to provide a very clear and concise description of their roles and responsibilities. It is acceptable to use short hand and point form in your descriptions so long as they are clearly understood by others—the tilde (~) to symbolize “approximately” is especially useful for employment and volunteering entries.
Again, the point is quality not quantity, even within a given entry—more words don’t necessarily help, and in fact will often bog down an entry or description without affording enough space for additional detail. This also speaks to the need to give yourself time to refine and edit your entries as well. Think of them a bit like poems—every word, every letter even, counts a great deal, and carries a lot of weight. Avoid putting yourself in a position where you need to rush through your sketch so that you can really polish each phrase to be as economical and impactful as possible.
If we haven’t made it abundantly clear yet, the most important strategy for crafting stellar sketch entries is time. Start early, be comprehensive, and be creative too. You don’t have to list 20 different esoteric activities to stand out, but you do want to be mindful of the things that make you unique, and give their entries enough time and care to really sparkle. And, lastly, try to enjoy the process of compiling and editing your sketch entries as an exercise in reflection—take stock of what makes you who you are, and feel confident that you’re headed for a meaningful vocation.
1. How long can my OMSAS sketch entries be?
Each entry has a hard limit of 150 characters. To put it into perspective, it’s the exact number of characters in this response. It's downright small!
2. Should I tailor my sketch entries to address the CanMEDS framework?
To some extent yes, but don’t make this too obvious or tedious. Again, the people reading your sketch will have read dozens if not hundreds of others in a short period of time, so try to make this aspect of your wording subtle. Don’t just list in a job description, for example, but instead identify a skill you gained while performing the job’s duties that implicitly corresponds to some aspect of the framework. This will take time and a lot of editing.
3. Should I list solitary hobbies or activities?
If you absolutely can’t think of someone who can verify an activity, you can still put it down in “Other,” and simply list yourself as a verifier. Keep these to a minimum, but if it’s an especially meaningful activity or experience, and you can capture that meaning succinctly and engagingly, then by all means include it. And keep in mind, you may very well be asked to discuss a self-verified hobby by an interviewer—be prepared to explain why you like solo-running old raids in World of Warcraft.
4. Should I include helping out elderly/sick/etc. family members?
You can and should include altruistic activities that have helped a family member or friend in need. While this would probably best fit in the “other” category, you can also list this in the “volunteering” section instead. Try to include the person you helped as a verifier, but another family member or friend will be fine too provided you were in contact with them at the time.
5. What are some important details to include in Extracurricular Activities entries?
- Specify your education level (i.e., first year of university).
- Indicate if the activity was during the summer or academic year, the total hours (per week or per month) and the number of years.
- Indicate the type of activity: Individual, team or club activity (i.e., sports, arts, music, student governments, personal activities such as camping, etc.).
- For sports activities, indicate at which level you performed: Recreational, varsity, intramural, provincial, national or international.
We’d also add that including, if possible, what impact the extracurricular had on you or your academic performance. For instance, noting that your time coaching little league baseball helped you improve your communication skills with both children and parents, and so on.
6. Are there people I shouldn’t include as verifiers?
People who are notoriously hard to get a hold of should be substituted for someone more accessible, even if they held a position of higher stature in the given activity or experience. It’s much more important to actually have verification than it is to have presumed support from someone more prestigious who turns their phone off for weeks at a time.
7. Should I include whether or not an employment entry was part-time or full-time?
Yes! Again, committees aren’t going to hold it against you if you only worked 20 hours per week instead of 40—the point is what skills and insights a job afforded you, and whether or not you performed its duties well. Most undergraduates don’t have a ton of full-time work experience anyway, so don’t worry about not having the resume of a mid-level executive.
8. I participated in a research project that unfortunately wasn’t published. Should I still include it?
Absolutely yes. The general format for research activities includes fields for duration—i.e., “from” and “to”—a description, location of research, title of project, type of publication, and your role. If it wasn’t ultimately published, simply don’t include that line, and use those extra characters to more fully describe your role or the project itself.
To your success,
Your friends at BeMo