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A list of "Don'ts" for Writing Your Medical School Personal Statement

Writing your personal statement for medical school certainly isn’t easy. As an admissions consultant, I’ve watched several students struggle to describe exactly why they decided to pursue a career in medicine. It's not a simple task, given the limited word count and the enormous amount of pressure.  The key to writing a strong personal statement is reflecting on where this initial desire came from, the steps you took to explore it, and what you learned about yourself and medicine along the way. A good personal statement leaves the reader with a sense of how you became interested in pursuing medicine in the first place, what you did to explore that interest, and how you finally decided that it was the right career for you. Sometimes these things are difficult to put into words. If you're struggling, then be sure to also read:

Even worse then not knowing what to say, what if you write something that will actually hurt your chances of getting in? No one wants their application cycle to end before they even get to the interview phase!

 To help you answer these questions, I’ve decided to put together a list of common mistakes that you should avoid while writing your personal statement for medical school. Most of the mistakes I’ll be outlining demonstrate a lack of professionalism or poor self-reflection. All of these errors outlined below can dash your chances of securing an interview, leaving you with an inbox full of rejection letters.

FIVE things you should absolutely avoid doing while writing your personal statement: 

1. Inappropriate Essay Tone:

The principal tone of your essay should never be angry. The personal statement is not the place to vent your frustrations or to lament your mistreatment at the hands of another person. Sure, high school may have been a difficult time for you, but devoting a whole paragraph to the various ways in which others tormented you is a waste of your precious word count and does little to showcase your ability to reflect on situations and move forward. Instead, briefly acknowledge that the situation was difficult, how that made you feel and the strategies you employed to move past it. You want to show that you are capable of dealing with interpersonal differences and moving forward in a positive and constructive way, not that you are stuck ruminating the past.

2. Blaming others:

I often see students blame another medical professional for something that went wrong with a patient. They might say something to the effect of “The nurse kept brushing off the patient’s concerns, refusing to ask the attending to increase her pain medications. Luckily, being the empathetic individual that I am, I took the time to listen to sit with the patient, eventually bringing her concerns to the attending physician, who thanked me for letting him know.” There are a couple things wrong with this example. First of all, it seems like this person is putting down someone else in an attempt to make themselves look better. Secondly, they come across as un-empathetic and judgemental of the nurse. Maybe she was having a busy day, or maybe the attending had just seen the patient for this issue, and the patient didn’t really need re-assessment. Reading this kind of statement in a personal statement makes me question the maturity of the applicant and their ability to move past blaming others and resolve problems in a meaningful way. Instead of allocating blame, identify what the problem was for the patient and then focus on what you did to resolve it and reflect on what you learned from the whole experience.

3. Not reflecting:

A lot of students are afraid to talk about how a situation made them feel in their personal statement. They worry that discussing feelings is inappropriate, and will appear unprofessional. Unfortunately for these students, emotional intelligence is hugely important to the practice of medicine. In order to be a good doctor, one must be aware of their own emotions as well as those of their patients. Good doctors are able to quickly identify their own emotions and understand how their emotional reactions may inform their actions, and ability to deliver appropriate care, in a given situation. Someone who is incapable of identifying their emotions is also incapable of managing them effectively and will likely struggle to identify the emotions of others. So, when writing your personal statement, think about how each experience made you feel, and what you learned from those feelings and that experience.

4. Telling, not showing:

It’s a mistake to simply list your skills or characteristics without showing the reader an example of a time you used them to solve a problem. If you simply list your skills, without showing how you have applied them, you risk coming across as arrogant. Further, the person reading the essay may not believe you. It is better to use a narrative to show the reader that you possess the traits that medical schools are looking for rather than explicitly stating that you are an “empathetic” individual or “capable of deep self-reflection”.

5. Not Seeking Feedback:

This sounds obvious, but it’s still an absolute necessity. No man (or woman) is an island and it’s very easy to be blind to your own spelling or grammatical errors. You know your own story and may think that the essay makes sense, but you won’t know without having someone else read it for you. Have someone you trust to read the essay and ask them what they thought of it. What was their impression of you after reading it? Did it make sense? Do they have any questions? What was the tone of the essay? Preferably this person should have some knowledge of the application process or the medical profession so that they can say whether you were successful in demonstrating that you are a suitable candidate for medical school.

So, those were my 5 things to avoid while writing your personal statement for medical school. Remember that the personal statement should be a narrative, describing your journey towards medicine. It’s your chance to showcase your personality to the admissions committee, so don’t be afraid to include personal details and showcase your strengths through an engaging narrative. Good luck with your personal statements!

Now that you've read what not to do, wondering how to actually write a great personal statement?

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