I’ve had the pleasure of editing 15 personal statement this week from pre-med students working on their medical school applications. It has been one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had as a writer, with my days filled with stories about uncles and World War II survivors and grandmothers and church services and tiny communities made up of narrow, winding roads that shaped its residents as surely as creeks and mountains shaped their routes.
Though every statement has been vastly different from the other, I’ve found myself making the same editing comments in their documents. It occurred to me that amassing these comments in one place, like here, will help prevent future students from having to make the same revisions.
The goal of a medical school personal statement, either for M.D.s or D.O.s, is to answer the question, “Why you do want to be a doctor?” Or, more specifically, “What about you will make you a good doctor?”
I rephrase the question intentionally this way because I hope it makes writers see the question through a more specific lens; it invites them to write about the traits and experiences that have contributed to the motivation they now have to get into medical school and dedicate their lives to being a physician.
Still, the rephrasing wasn’t enough to prevent the most common pitfall that is made in medical school personal statements. What is it?
MISTAKE NO. 1: MAKING GENERAL COMMENTS ABOUT MEDICINE
In answering why you want to be a doctor, it’s tempting to explain what you understand the practice of medicine to be. This may lead you down the path of an exposition about how good physicians will:
- do anything to find answers for their patients and don’t let their egos get in the way of that.
- continually educate themselves and keep abreast of the latest advancements made in medicine.
- listen to their patients and take the time to talk to them.
- realize their relationship with their patients is unique and they need to help treat them both physically and emotionally.
All of these statements are true, of course, and they perhaps show some insight into what your understanding is of what a doctor does. But they don’t tell me how this applies to you. If you must make the statement, do it to either:
- pitch how you personally plan to implement these standards in your future practice (showing us a little of how your brain and personality work).
- or, better yet, show us why this is important specifically to your personality and your life.
So if you’re writing about how good physicians should continually educate themselves, I want to see how you take it upon yourself to continually educate yourself. What strategies do you employ? What have you researched? How do you help disseminate this information to the public?
You can assume that whomever is reading your statement is already well-versed in a physician’s relationship with medicine. What’s important is how it relates to the kind of person you are.
MISTAKE NO. 2: NEVER-ENDING PARAGRAPHS
You know when you’re reading an article in a magazine and you’re committed to the article and you’re enjoying it, but then you flip the page and you realize that you have an entire page of text to get through without any ads or cartoons or even strange drawings like they have in The New Yorker to break up the copy?
You feel this momentary feeling of reluctance, don’t you? You have to exhale a bit because you held your breath for a moment, but then you grit your teeth and start working your way through it.
That is not a feeling you want anyone to have while reading your personal statement.
So, adopt the technique used in newspapers and use short, snappy paragraphs to break things up. It might feel unnatural at first because most students are used to modeling their essays on the five-paragraph style they learned in high school. But this kind of essay is a different beast (it even has its own designation: narrative essay), so you should feel free to break up your paragraphs. Take a look at the posts in my Toasted Tomato blog to see how short your paragraphs can be.
MISTAKE NO. 3: NOT NAMING YOUR PLACE, NAMING YOUR PEOPLE
I talked to my students a lot about the importance of including detail, honesty and vulnerability in their essays (read here for how to write this way and why you should), but I think they still feel reluctant to give too much of themselves.
But if you really want to personalize your essay, I want these details. For example, when I asked a student to tell me her uncle’s name, she said everyone called him, “Bub.” Isn’t this perfect? You can immediately get an idea of the kind of person who would go by that moniker. That only took up three characters (of the 5,300 or 4,800 you have to work with, depending on your M.D. or D.O. application), and yet I have an immediate picture of who she’s writing about.
The same applies with your city, town, neighborhood or even the piece of county that you grew up in. Often, students will write about “where I grew up” or “my town.”
What’s the town? What’s the place? Detroit is a whole lot different than a holler in Kentucky, right? And I can infer a few things about you if I know you’re from the South or the Midwest or the East Coast or out West, especially if you’re writing about how much your community influenced you — and why, in turn, you want to pursue medicine to help improve your community’s health.
So, always look for opportunities to be specific instead of general.
MISTAKE NO. 4: IGNORING ADVERBS, AGES, DASHES
These are three picky mistakes, but they are worth mentioning, because they are so common.
- Adverbs: You don’t need them. You think they strengthen what you’re saying, but because they’re unnecessary, they weaken instead. So all of the instances of “just, very, really, truly, ever, especially, commonly” in your essay need to go. If you want other options, here is a list of 147 words you can use instead of the word “very.”
- Ages are always depicted using numbers, according to Associated Press style. So you are never thirteen in your personal statement, you are 13. You’re never nine, you’re 9. This is good news because it saves characters.
- I’ve noticed that students like using dashes. That’s a good thing, because they have an element of drama. However, if you’re going to use a dash, use an em dash. It’s basically a long dash — but it looks nicer. You also need a space before and after it. To make an em dash using a Mac, press option + shift + minus sign. To make an em dash using a P.C., press control + alt + minus sign.
MISTAKE NO. 5: CONCLUSIONS THAT SUM UP
I can get cranky when it comes to conclusions, though I do recognize that they aren’t easy to write. What annoys me most is when students spend time (and characters) repeating the points they’ve already made in their statements. This ends up in yawn-inspiring sentences like this: “In conclusion, I want to be a doctor because I want to touch lives at a personal level, because I want to not only be my patients’ doctor, but their friend, and because I want to help the community where I grew up.”
Huh? This personal statement matters a lot. A lot, a lot. But that’s the note you’re going to end it on?
A conclusion for a 5,300-character statement needs no summing up. I mean, you’ve only been writing for a little more than a single-spaced page, no one needs a refresher. Instead, I want to see passion. I want to see rhythm in your sentences. I want to see something new. I want you to bare your soul and show me your heart. I want a culmination. I want to come away feeling like I’ve been thumped in the chest and in the brain and in the gut.
So, work on it as much as you work on your first sentence and first paragraph. Don’t get tired. And if you do, take a break and come back to it. Again, this isn’t a five-paragraph expository essay, this is a narrative essay. It’s different. So, get creative and make your conclusion really pack a punch.
Writing a great medical school personal statement isn’t easy. But avoid these mistakes, and I promise you’ll have a better product than when you started. And if you’re struggling, know that I’m always here at firstname.lastname@example.org.