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The Personal Statement or Application Essay

The personal statement or essay is probably the most dreaded and feared part of the actual medical school application.

Read what successful applicants have to say about the personal statement.

YOUR Statement

The first thing to know is that this is YOUR "personal" statement. It is yours. No one else can write it for you. Reading other people's statements in preparation to write your own may be helpful in some cases, but not always. No single person will be in exactly your circumstances or have exactly the same background and extra-curricular and other experiences you have.

Through the essay, the admissions committee wants to see who you are. They only have your "sterile" application in front of them, listing all of your accomplishments, your coursework and other information. The personal statement allows them to see you as a person, not just in terms of numbers and lists of accomplishments. The statement is also used by the people who interview you. Interviewers usually review your file and application essay before the interview. I was asked about my personal statement in every interview I had, and, most likely, you will be, too.

Other People's Statements

Reading other people's statements will most likely make you feel "inferior" since you have not even started to think of yours. You will be astonished about how well other people are able to write, how neat their stories are, how entertaining their essay is and how well it flows.

What you don't see is that they went through the same turmoil you are going through now, that they may have spent several months writing, rewriting and refining every sentence and every word to make it flow and sound that good. They may even have involved an English professor or other people to help them finalize their statements.

So, don't panic or think you could never come up with something that good. By the time you're done, people will be in awe about your statement when they first start out writing theirs.

Before I started writing my statement, I bought two books that contained 40 actual essays of successful applicants. With each additional essay I read, I got more frustrated and convinced that I could never write anything like that. I also was drawn into how they wrote and thought and saw certain phrases or wording that I wanted to use because they sounded good.

However, reading other applicant's essays may lead to problems - you may end up using their language and expressions rather than your own.

I had to "unload" all of these essays from my brain and start over to actually write MY OWN statement. Once I did that, things began to work and the statement started to come together. I wrote "my own personal statement" and did not use any fancy phrases or language from other essays. It was truly my own statement.

Some basic guidelines

1. Show your motivations and why you are interested in medicine
2. Show your qualities, strengths and accomplishments by illustration/story rather than factual statements
3. Spelling, grammar, neatness count (don't rely on your spell-checker - ask others to read your statement)
4. Don't overdo selling yourself.
      ("I'm superman, I will defeat all evil, stamp out disease and save the planet.")

The medical school is really interested in hearing about you and your motivations in becoming a physician. The trick in telling them about yourself is telling stories or write about what you have done to show how you interact, what type of person you are - and what feelings and motivations you have.

So, rather than saying, "I am compassionate, hard-working, love to help people and have all the qualities to become a great physician...", which may all be correct, factual statements about you, you need to spend some time showing this through activities you have done and through stories. Support your hypothesis with data - ever heard this before?

That means you may have to describe how you felt when you saw the results of your tutoring efforts of high school students rather than factually explaining your tutoring - they know what tutoring is and can see that that you have done this on the application anyway.

You may want to focus on how you felt when the little boy was treated by the physician you shadowed, or what moved you when you volunteered at the soup kitchen, or what lesson you learned from an experience.

It is very hard to express this in your essay, but this will make your essay come alive to the reader and show your personality, character and attributes favorably instead of just listing them.

In short, the admissions people want to hear about you and your story as well as your motivations for medicine. Write about the lessons you've learned, your feelings and motivations. What are the things that convinced you to pursue medicine? If you have dreamed of becoming a physician all your life, write about that. But you better have some evidence to support that claim in the form of stories and experiences that have validated that choice. Maybe you have had some serious event in your life that caused you to pursue medicine. Write about it.

Your statement does not have to be completely about pre-medical pursuits, etc. If you love sports or any other activity that totally defines you and has taught you great lessons or shows your positive qualities and attributes, you can use that as your story. The personal statement is intended to TELL YOUR STORY, overall. Whatever that story is. Just make sure that what you write about still meets the general idea and you answer the question "Why medicine?" and show how these qualities will make you a great physician.

You don't absolutely have to answer the question "Why medicine?", if you don't want to, even though it is recommended, as long as you can show your qualities and demonstrate that you will be a great physician based on the story you tell. "Telling the story" does not mean making up anything. Be truthful, don't lie about anything and be careful with exaggerations.

You can capitalize on your unique situation. Are you a non-traditional student? Write about it. Write about why you changed your mind and what led you to medicine.

Your personal statement should also be used to explain any poor performance or major gaps in your education or work experience. So, if you have deficits or major questionable items on application, the personal statement is the place to address some of these.

How to come up with your "qualities"

So, you think you are plain boring and have nothing to share?

Ask yourself and others (others often know you better than you do) about your qualities and make a list of them. Are you energetic, driven, focused, organized, a leader, a team player, compassionate, .....
Come up with a list and pick the top 3 to 5 of them that really define you the most. Try to bring these qualities out as you write the statement. When your statement is done, ask yourself "Are each one of these reflected in this statement?" If not, try to rewrite some parts to incorporate them.

Here are some basic traits to jump start your thinking (in no particular order):

1. You care about others.
2. You are compassionate.
3. You are driven.
4. You are energetic.
5. You are motivated.
6. You have a strong work ethic.
7. You have goals.
8. You are responsible.
9. You are friendly and easy to get along with.
10. You get along well with others.
11. You are easy and good to work with.
12. You are a team player.
13. You are a leader.
14. You motivate others.
15. You get stuff done.
16. You enjoy helping.

How to come up with your "motivation for medicine"

What made you decide to pursue medicine?
What events (shadowing, volunteering, or other events) appealed to you or "opened your eyes" or lead you down this path to medicine?
Imagine you had to convince your spouse or a close friend who is skeptical about your decision that medicine was your thing, what would you tell him or her? How would you back up your claim?
Do you love the sciences, the cutting edge of biology, curing diseases, dealing with people, helping others, intellectual stimulation, challenges?

If you are having a hard time with this, you probably haven't spend enough time with extra-curricular activities that involve you in patient care - whether actively or as an observer.

Don't overdo it

You want to sell yourself, but without bragging or giving the impression you are the best thing that ever happened to Planet Earth. People reading your statements can immediately sense if you are insincere or bluffing. They have read thousands of statements throughout the years and are pros - so take them seriously. Don't lie, don't exaggerate too much, and don't brag. But stress your strong points.

A note about the AMCAS and AACOMAS statements

The AMCAS statement (for MD schools) is limited to 5300 characters (about 1 page), including spaces. Use Word to give you word counts and if you are over this limit, try to eliminate words or phrases that are non-essential to your story. Maybe you have to rewrite a few sentences to save characters.

The AACOMAS statement (for DO schools) is limited to 3000 characters, including spaces. You can trim down your AMCAS statement if you are applying to both types of schools or write a separate one from scratch.

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