A little secret about me: I might be the only person on the planet who loves going to the doctor. I go every year, whether Dr. Horn wants to see me or not, and when I’m in her office, I relax so deeply I might as well be having a massage. Her nurse takes my blood pressure with that black cuff: my heart slows. Dr. Horn makes me breathe in and out while listening to places on my back: I practically ooze off the examination table. My only regret is that docs no longer seem to thwock me on the back with their knuckles or test my reflexes with that orange-headed hammer. I loved that.
So if, in any way, I can help people become doctors, those magical people who are both brilliant and compassionate and who make me feel safe and healthy? Well, that’s just about the biggest honor I can imagine.
The nearly impossibly good news is that I can help. I may not know organic chemistry, but I do know writing. And if you are applying to med school, you have likely come across the required med school personal statement, sometimes called the “personal comments essay.”
If you are applying to be an M.D. via AMCAS, you have 5,300 characters to work with, which usually translates to a single-spaced page + one healthy paragraph. If you are applying to be a D.O. or with AACOMAS, click here.
So. What to do with those characters?
Let’s look at the official med school prompt.
- Why have you selected the field of medicine?
- What motivates you to learn more about medicine?
- What do you want medical schools to know about you that hasn’t been disclosed in other parts of your application?
In addition, you may wish to include information such as:
- Unique hardships, challenges, or obstacles that may have influenced your educational pursuits
- Comments on significant fluctuations in your academic record that are not explained elsewhere in your application
As you see, you are basically assigned to answer this question: Why do you want to be a doctor? Or, if you like, “What about you will make you a good doctor?”
Before we proceed, know that the open-ended nature of the prompt is a marvelous gift. That means you get to make this essay entirely yours. And, trust me, you will.
START WITH TWO LISTS
Before you begin writing, I want you to make two sets of lists. Yay, lists!
First, I want you to list what traits you possess that would make you a great doctor. Are you:
- a good communicator
- unusually mature
- good under pressure
- a leader
- a good listener
- intellectually curious
- a good detective
For more about the traits a good doctor should have, click here.
Next, I want you to make a list of your stories, which can include:
- “aha” moments (moments of sudden insight or discovery)
Whittle down your list to your three best stories. Identify the most important moment in each one — the moment something changed, happened or began. Then, identify which traits of yours were triggered in you during these moments.
Decide which is your best story — the one that both showcases who you are and indicates why you want to be a doctor. That’s where you should begin your med school personal statement.
NO STORY IS TOO SMALL
For personal statements, the best stories are honest, detailed, show vulnerability, and go somewhere.
Don’t worry too much if it doesn’t seem that “dramatic” or “big” from the outset; the key is that it was important to you. It can be about the day you volunteered at a day camp for kids with special needs. It can be about a day in the park when someone fell off their bike. It can be about the day in the park when you fell off your bike. It can be about someone choking on a waffle in a diner. It can be about cooking with your grandfather. It can be about figure skating. It can be about playing the violin. It can be about being in an ambulance. It can be about swimming in a lake. It can be about pushing a wheelchair. It can be about being in a wheelchair.
Thinking of this story, I want you to activate your senses. What did you see? Hear? Taste? Feel? Smell? What are the littlest details that you remember about it? What were you wearing? The person beside you wearing? What did the concrete feel like? The water feel like? What were you cooking? Playing? What did you smell?
Know that no detail is too small. In fact, I want you to activate the mundane intentionally. Life’s littlest details are exactly what is going to make this story uniquely yours. Why? Only you noticed them. That is what will make your story authentic and that is how you can make a memorable connection with your reader.
WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU DID
Once you’ve zeroed in on your story, I want you to write about your place in the story. The key here is to keep your reader inside your head the whole essay. How did you behave in the moment that you’re describing? What did you do? How did you feel? What did you think? How did you react? How did your brain work? What did you tackle?
One important point: You don’t have to be the hero in your med school essay. In fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t. It’s been my experience that “aha” moments that help define one’s life are often shockingly small in nature.
Another important point: If your moment intrinsically involves someone else, say your grandfather or your mom, or something else, like a trip or an event, you must constantly be careful to make the essay about you reacting to your grandfather, mom, trip or event. It cannot actually be about your grandfather, mom, trip or event, OK?
A PYTHON RUNS INTO A POODLE
One of the best med school personal statements I’ve ever read started like this:
“I was standing behind the cash register when it happened. A woman had just finished playing with the puppies and reached for a 10-foot-long Burmese python wrapped around this guy’s neck. He was buying rats to feed it — I’m still not sure why he felt the need to bring it in the pet store — but the snake’s next moves instilled a fear in me that I will take to my grave.
As she reached toward the serpent, it grabbed a hold of her forearm and blood started dripping all over the floor. The lady handled it far better than I would have: She just stood there amused while the snake’s owner used a pencil to force its jaws off her arm. After that, I had to ask the guy to watch his pet and stop chatting because it was about to eat the $800 poodle it smelled on her in the first place.
Working at Jack’s Aquarium was far from your everyday kind of job. I had to deal with snakes biting people, anemones stinging children, and birds cussing out customers as they walked in. But, from the age of 16, I knew I loved working in an unpredictable and exciting environment.”
Why do I love this med school essay so much? Let’s count the ways:
- From the first sentence, you want to keep reading.
- While a python biting a woman has a degree of drama to it, the writer doesn’t embellish what really happened. Instead, only honesty shines through: the woman doesn’t get hysterical as predicted, she is amused; there is no brute strength used to get the python off of her, instead just a lowly pencil to pry the jaws apart; the writer doesn’t forget to mention the price of the poodle because, after all, he works at a pet store.
- You can constantly hear the voice of the writer: the use of “this guy’s,” the choice of the word “chatting” instead of “speaking,” the expression “still not sure why he felt the need.” There aren’t three-syllable words crammed in here. There aren’t flowery metaphors. In fact, the only literary device used here is the idiom “take to my grave,” which is a cliché and still works because it’s in keeping with the writer’s voice.
- The writer does something: “he asks the guy to watch his pet and stop chatting.” It’s a tense situation and the writer shows that he’s capable of managing it, yet still allows the expert (presumably the python’s owner) to handle the snake. We know from the outset that the writer has a good sense of humor. Now we see that he has a clear head in a tense situation. He also knows his place by not trying to take over; he lets the python owner manage the python. But can we infer that it’s probably the writer who handed him the pencil? Yeah, probably. Because the writer is smart, too.
Anyway, obviously, I love this story. But I want you to see how it works for a med school application. It’s not just that it’s dramatic and amusing. If it were only that, there wouldn’t be any substance to it. It’s that it’s honest, detailed and goes somewhere.
WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT AFTER YOUR OPENING STORY
Remember your lists? That wasn’t for nothing. After your opening story, I want you to write about the other reasons why you want to go into medicine by writing about your other stories. Obviously, these will be less detailed than your first story, but they will show different aspects of your personality and answer why you want to be a doctor.
So this can include stories about your shadowing experience, your job at an ice cream store, your passion for marching band or debate club or roller derby, your time with a patient, time in a hospital hallway, time at a hospital reception desk.
Make sure you follow up each of your stories with insight that you’ve gleaned from them. So, if you’re writing about falling off your bike, tell your reader why you’re writing about. Often, this means starting a paragraph with the words, “This is the moment I realized …” When using story, it’s important that you share your insight with your reader so he or she knows where you’re going with it, because sometimes the stories shared in med school personal statements — some of the best personal statements I’ve seen, in fact — don’t have an obvious connection to wanting to be a doctor.
WHAT NOT TO WRITE ABOUT
There are stories I think you should avoid. A story about a 6-year-old you bandaging the paw of your stuffed animal named Bobby is one. I don’t care how many details you add to that story, it’s just been played out. Same for the story of a 7-year-old you receiving a doctor’s kit to help you perform fake surgeries.
By and large, I prefer for stories to be about the adult you, rather than the kid you. To me, what you have realized as an adult says more about you than what you realized as a child. If there isn’t a way to work around that, that’s OK, if you stick to being honest and rely on the details. It’s also preferable if you are still involved in whatever it is you are writing about. Meaning, if you write about your passion for music, as the writer does here, it needs to be something you’re still passionate about as an adult.
Further, I strongly recommend you avoid the sentence “I like to help people” in your personal statement. Guess what? Every doctor does. And more than that, liking to help people doesn’t uniquely belong to being a doctor. Teachers help people. Nurses do it. Cops do, too.
Finally, don’t be too chronological in your medical school personal statement. You don’t want your essay to be plodding. We don’t need to read about your childhood, then middle school, high school, college experiences. Even if they demonstrate you being consistent about wanting to be a doctor, they don’t show much else. Besides, everyone applying will have these milestones in their lives; they’re not unique enough to write about.
ADDRESS YOUR SLIP-UPS IN YOUR MED SCHOOL PERSONAL STATEMENT
The personal statement prompt invites you to address gaps that may appear in your transcript, whether you had to take a year off or you failed a class. If you have these slip-ups in your academic record, you should absolutely save some space to address them. Remember what I said about vulnerability and honesty? That’s what is important. In fact, these slip-ups say as much about your story as anything — and they don’t have to be a bad thing.
Just focus on what you learned because of them. Again, it might be a time to explain the exact moment (another anecdote!) you realized the benefits of a hardship.
HOW TO END YOUR MEDICAL SCHOOL PERSONAL STATEMENT
Once you have established what you’re made of and have demonstrated why you’re passionate about becoming a doctor, I want you to answer this in your conclusion:
- What is the significance of what you’ve shown the reader?
- What are its implications?
How to pull this off? Show me what you see for yourself in the future. What, for example, could possibly be your most honored day as a doctor? And how were the seeds of that perfect day planted in your opening story? Or tell me about:
- a patient you will have and what you will do for her.
- how you will be changed.
- how you will change your community by being a doctor.
Most importantly, broaden my idea of you and your passion in your conclusion, do not simply restate what you’ve already told me. I know they often tell you to do this in essay-writing seminars, but a restatement is just another way of saying “repeat yourself.” With so few characters to work with, you don’t have the luxury of that. So expand. Indicate. Send me in the direction you are headed, the direction that you want me to see.
MEDICAL SCHOOL PERSONAL STATEMENT SAMPLES
If you want to read a few winner-winner-chicken-dinner essays, click here and here for a few links. Just be aware that everyone else will be reading these, too. They’re helpful to scan, if just to reinforce what we talked about earlier about the pet store personal statement, but don’t absorb them too deeply lest you’re subconsciously tempted to emulate their style.
Know that you already have all the material needed to write an excellent medical school personal statement. Using these tips and tactics will help turn good into great. And, as always, if you need more help, don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. After all, I’ll do anything for docs.