The Personal Statement
As part of your primary application, you will need to write an essay, usually referred to as the personal statement. The personal statement should focus on why you want to go to medical school and how you have prepared for a career as a physician.
Beyond knowing your GPA and your MCAT score, an admissions committee wants to know who you are and why you are pursuing a career in medicine. Your personal statement provides the opportunity to communicate directly about these issues to the admissions committee.
The personal statement is part of your application to medical school but it is more. The personal statement is not just a product submitted to the medical school. Medical schools require the writing of a personal statement as an exercise in self-reflection that all students must undertake before beginning medical school. Medical school can be an extremely challenging, stressful experience. Medical schools do not want to admit medical students who do not know why they are there. One must be a very well-grounded, mature person, with a well-developed perspective on himself or herself, to be successful. Therefore, in a sense, the personal statement is not just part of the application, but writing it is a crucial part of the process of preparing for medical school and a career in medicine.
Often, applicants employ narrative techniques in their statements, through which the writer recounts a series of experiences or events that shaped the writer. An effective approach often is to write about a few of the personal experiences that sparked your interest in medicine, or clarified that medicine is the right choice for you. What started you on the path toward medicine? What help you going on that path?
Keeping a journal can be very helpful in preparing to write your personal statement. You can begin a file on your computer for a premed journal, and use it to record any thoughts you have at any time about what interests you about a career in medicine and how you are preparing for it. Sometimes you may find that when you sit down to write, you start out with one thought, which leads to another thought, and then another, and by the end you have thought about something that you never thought about before. This can be a very helpful process for students before they begin to apply to medical school.
Your journal can help you generate ideas so that then you can pick out the best ones to include in your personal statement. Your journal also can be very helpful later on when preparing additional essays for secondary applications and in preparing for your interviews. If you keep a journal in which you regularly engage in self-reflection on the process you are going through in preparing for a career in medicine, you will have a very valuable resource to help you throughout the application process.
As you begin to compose your statement, you may wish to start with some personal statement warm-up exercises to help you generate ideas to include.
Using concrete, descriptive language in writing about your personal experiences can be very effective and convincing to an admissions committee. Detailed descriptions of events and experiences tend to reveal more about the inner experience of the writer than generalizations. They also demonstrate the writer's powers of observation and ability to communicate effectively; these are essential characteristics of a good physician. Detailed descriptions of experiences also can create lasting images in the minds of admissions committee members. Writing a memorable personal statement can boost an applicant's chances of successfully making it through the evaluation process that takes place in admissions committee meetings, where the final decisions are made.
A good personal statement demonstrates self-awareness but also the ability to connect with others. Two common criticisms are made of personal statements: 1) the person does not seem to know himself or herself, and 2) the person does not seem to connect well with others. Both awareness of oneself and awareness of others are considered crucial for success in medical school, and in a career as a physician. Balance is needed, and ideally, a good personal statement reveals the author's self-insight, without seeming too self-centered.
Admissions committees can assess your thought processes through your personal statement. Your mental focus is shown by your ability to sustain a train of thought and develop your ideas in writing. By the same token, a lack of mental focus may be shown by a rambling, incoherent, poorly integrated essay. Through the personal statement the admissions committee can evaluate the complexity of your reasoning skills. An essay stating relatively simple reasons for why you are interested in a career in medicine ("I want to help people") may not be as impressive as one that demonstrates an understanding of the complex realities that physicians and patients often face.
The personal statement also allows the admissions committee to assess an essential characteristic you will need as a physician: the ability to use language skillfully and effectively. How will you be able to tell a patient that he or she has a terminal illness, or explain a very complex disease process and the treatment needed in terms that a patient with very little scientific knowledge can understand, if you cannot use language effectively and creatively? Your ability to communicate effectively and convincingly to the admissions committee will reflect on the abilities you will bring to the practice of medicine.
A good physician must also have good observation skills, and good observation skills are often reflected in the essays that admissions committees like the best. Demonstrating your understanding of human behavior and experience; and knowledge of yourself and others around you; will reflect well on the abilities you would bring to the practice of medicine.
In addition to the personal statement that is included as part of your primary application, secondary applications also often require additional essays. You will need to be prepared to do a lot of writing throughout the application process. If in drafting your personal statement you write material that you do not include in your initial personal statement for the primary application, do not discard it, as you may wish to use it later in secondary application essays.
If you are applying to osteopathic schools, the personal statement you submit on the AACOMAS application should reflect your knowledge of, and interest in, osteopathic medicine. If you are applying to both allopathic and osteopathic schools you should tailor your essays for each audience.
The AMCAS application asks additional essay questions for applicants to MD/PhD programs. These additional essays should give a rationale for your decision to pursue an MD/PhD program and provide information on your research experience. Your essays should reflect specific preparation for a career in medicine and research. Many MD/PhD programs look for a specific interest in and understanding of the process of translational research in the applicant's essays as well.
Personal Statement and Application Essay Podcast Episodes
Need some coaching on writing application essays? Check out the podcast episodes HPPLC has created below for some help on the process.
1. Understanding the Med School Personal Statement
Are you just getting started and want to understand how the medical school personal statement fits into your application and how it differs from the essays you commonly write for other grad programs? Listen to “Understanding the Med School Personal Statement.”
2. Quick Personal Statement Exercise
Are you having difficulty starting your personal statement and just feeling stuck? Try the “Quick Personal Statement Exercise.”
3. Turning Your Ideas into a Draft
Have you completed the exercise above but you are still having trouble turning your ideas into a draft? Check out the “Turning Your Ideas into a Draft” podcast.
4. Work and Activities Essays
Are you confused about how you should go about completing the work and activities entries and the meaningful experiences essays on the AMCAS application? Listen to the podcast episode on “Writing Entries for the AMCAS Work and Activities Section.”