Call them personal statements, brief personal essays, personal statements or secondary essays... no matter what you call them there are 11 essential qualities you MUST include in your med school essays to get closer to that coveted med school interview and importantly to the dreaded rejection letter.
Medical schools ask for personal statements because they serve as a window into your personal story, your written communication skills and your connection with the human experience. They can also serve as a reservoir for an applicant’s red flags, like dubious ethical decisions, lack of self-awareness or unprofessionalism. Schools use the statements to figure out if they would look forward to seeing you every day in clinic because you’re a hard worker without ego, you’re dedicated to learning, you can independently solve problems and you care about helping people.
We believe there are 11 essential characteristics of a strong personal statement. If you can be sure that your personal statements possess these characteristics, your statement will be well taken by most admissions committees. This will not alone guarantee admission to medical school but it could squeeze you onto a waitlist, off of the waitlist and onto the offer list, or give someone on the admissions committee a reason to go to battle for your candidacy. Here's the list:
Your personal statement must:
1. Be True, and Be Yours.
It is an act of professional misconduct to lie on your application to medical schools. This is not a great way to start your career. These false statements are difficult to catch but it does happen. Additionally, your statement will sound inauthentic. Personal statements are excellent training for interviews and if your personal statement is not true your interview responses will sound similarly inauthentic.
If you feel as though your life hasn’t been interesting enough to stand out on a personal statement, you haven’t thought about it long enough. This is a reason to brainstorm your statement excessively before you begin to write. Lurking in your life, somewhere, will be a valuable hook or frame for your statement.
2. Explain why you want to be a doctor.
Personal statements often start by explaining why medicine is awesome. It is awesome, of course. But the admission committees already know that. You should explain why YOU want a career in medicine. What about the practice of medicine works with who you are? Naturally, this takes a lot of reflection around whom, exactly, you are. Start journaling or exercising some other creative muscle many months before the application – and ideally during the earlier half of the undergraduate degree – so that there is a coherent logic around why you want to be a doctor.
And then communicate that as tightly and effectively as possible in your personal statement. Even questions that don’t ask why you want to be a doctor should be connected in some way to this coherent logic.
3. Use a narrative to paint a picture of who you are as a person.
One of the best ways to illustrate that you’ve got the qualities required for medicine is by telling the admissions committees a story about your life. If you’ve worked through professional challenges, explain how you’ve done that and what you’ve learned about yourself. If you’ve demonstrated great perseverance, explain when and how.
Remember that these stories must be true, yours and connected to why you want to be a doctor. These stories cannot effectively serve this purpose unless you’ve put a lot of effort into planning your statements in advance.
4. Address your core values, principles and ethical acumen.
The story you choose to tell should also highlight one or two of your most tightly held values, principles or ethical positions in a logical way. If you are someone who is committed to community service, and have a track record of such service, your story should feature this and provide insight into why you care about your community. Saying “I value community service” when you’ve never volunteered a day in your life is absurd. Saying “My family is one where we support each other through challenge and loss,” if this is true, is excellent because it lays the groundwork for telling a story, shows that you have a positive orientation towards close relationships and that you are principled.
5. Demonstrate the traits of professionalism.
Professionalism is, at its root, about respect for the experience of others on your team or in your workplace. Stories or examples of when you have demonstrated respect in a workplace have real value, as long as you are connecting it to why you want to be a physician.
6. Establish your written communication skills.
The ability to communicate a complex idea in a short space is among the most important of a physician’s skills. Doctors communicate with each other and patients using clear language without fancy or vague words. If you can demonstrate that you’ve already got this skill down pat with non-medical language, you will place yourself ahead of the pack.
7. Use clear and accessible language.
Describing a clinical condition to a patient requires using specific but clear words. This is why your personal statement should do the same thing. Using large words in unwieldy ways makes you sound like you are compensating for poor communication skills. Use words that you believe most people understand. Read your personal statement back to a 14 year-old and then again to someone for whom English is not their first language to see if you’re off the mark.
Fancy words do not make you a good communicator. Listening and ensuring comprehension makes you a good communicator.
8. Be grammatically immaculate.
If you give yourself more than one night to write your statement, the chances of grammatical errors will decrease. Use the grammar checker on your word processor. Use the eyes and ears of other people to check and double-check. Read your statement out loud to yourself and I can almost guarantee that you will find an error. Use fresh eyes on the statement several times before you actually submit and you should be in the clear.
9. Possess flow, or readability.
If the statement is pleasant to read, it will get read with more attention and appreciation. Flow is easier to craft through narrative, which is why you should root the statement in a story that accomplishes characteristics one through five in this list. Flow takes time to build, which is why your statement should be etched out through many drafts and should also be based on an outline. That is, you should brainstorm, then outline, then draft and re-draft, then bring in editors and listeners. Then check and double-check. Then run through the list of cardinal errors below and fix anything that needs fixing. Then submit.
10. If you are going to take language risks, you should have a lot of writing experience and do it well.
Some applicants will have degrees for which they’ve written hundreds of thousands of words and read millions of words. These applicants should feel welcome to take strategic, creative risks with their narratives but every point on this list still counts. Just because you know how to master a two-dollar word doesn’t mean it belongs in your medical school application. Your personal statement should also maintain its concreteness – and be wary of the very abstract – while you take your creative risks. Just because you’re a strong writer doesn’t mean you don’t need an editor. Margaret Atwood has an editor. Everyone needs an editor. You need an editor.
11. Address gaps in GPA, MCAT or other history as per the directives on the school’s application guidelines.
The University of Toronto, the University of Calgary and Memorial University of Newfoundland ask candidates to explain gaps in the academic portion of their application in the personal statement. The same is true for American med schools. Review the directions with a great degree of focus so that you leave no questions unanswered.
Click here to download our FREE Pre-Med Report entitled: "Top 5 reasons 90% of med school applicants get rejected - and how to avoid them."
About the author:
Dr. Ashley Faye White is currently a rural medicine resident at McMaster University and a senior admissions expert at BeMo. She has an M.D. from McMaster medical school and had navigated her way into med school as a non-traditional applicant.
To your success,