The Agnew Clinic

Application Essentials II: The Personal Statement

December 6, 2012
Alex Macnow

Let’s start today with a simple (?) question:

“Who are you?”

With all respect to Roger Daltrey, this is actually one of the most challenging questions for pre-med students to answer.  And yet, this question is the basis of a major part of your application:  The Personal Statement.

While there just isn’t enough space in a single blog entry to cover every facet of the Personal Statement, there are a couple important themes to keep in mind as you’re coming up with what you plan to write in – what many admissions officers refer to as – “your interview in writing.”  So, with that, let’s tackle some of the frequently asked questions on Personal Statements!

  • What is the prompt? – This is actually surprisingly vague (but that’s a good thing!).  AAMC’s prompt from the AMCAS Application is:  “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.”
  • How long should it be? – There is a 5300-character maximum (about 1.5 pages, single-spaced, 12-point font).  You do NOT have to fill all of the available space; in fact, a more cogent, focused Personal Statement that falls short of 5300 characters will always be stronger than one that’s forcibly lengthened by digressions or irrelevant material.
  • How many versions do I write? – Unlike secondary applications, your Personal Statement is identical between all schools that you apply to.  Thus, you’ll only have one version and it should not be directed towards any individual school.  We’ll have more on secondary application essays next week.
  • What do I write about? – As you saw above, there’s no specific prompt for the medical school Personal Statement.  But you have three major goals to accomplish in this essay; use these goals to brainstorm ideas and focus your essay.
    • (1)  Why medicine?  And – specifically – why an MD or a DO?  Far too often, students write generic phrases about “wanting to help people.”  That’s certainly an aspect of being a doctor, but it doesn’t really differentiate your passion for being a physician from other fields, like nursing (who really provide the majority of care for your patients!), respiratory therapists, physical therapists, and tons of fields even outside of medicine – firefighters, plumbers and gardeners certainly help people, too.  So why do you want to be a physician specifically?  Is it the translation of your scientific knowledge into patient education, so that you can help promote behavioral change that supports a healthy lifestyle?  Is it the pursuit of new therapies and cures through research?  Is it the rigor of a career that demands lifelong learning?
    • (2)  What is unique about you?  Medical schools want to know that – when they admit you – you’ll contribute to the class in a unique way.  Diversity in medical education is a HUGE topic, but medical schools want to admit a class that is diverse in all facets – not just demographics, but educational experiences, life challenges, medical interests, and more.
    • (3)  How does everything fit together?  You want your Personal Statement to weave a story about you.  Rather than rewriting your résumé (in lengthier text), your Personal Statement should have a theme that you can come back to throughout.  Perhaps you’re a musicology major who’s also passionate about education and patient care – well, a focus on the intersection between the arts in sciences both historically (see The Agnew Clinic, a famous painting by Thomas Eakins, above — which hangs proudly in my alma mater)  and in your own life may be a good launching-off point (it’s worked before!).
  • Who should edit my Personal Statement? – This is a key (and often-overlooked) question.  You want your Personal Statement to be a highly-polished product that really “wows” medical schools.  To do this, you want at least three editors:
    • Someone who knows you really well – Medical schools can pick up on a disingenuous Personal Statement from a mile away.  Get a best friend, a parent, a significant other to call you on any bluffing or “gaming” of the Personal Statement.  It’s not about writing what you think the admissions committee wants to hear – it’s about writing the truth, representing yourself tactfully, and letting your accomplishments speak for themselves.
    • A strict grammarian – To be sure, using a comma when you should be using a semicolon will not keep you out of medical school.  But any lack of clarity or sloppiness in your Personal Statement will subjectively bring down the quality of your essay.
    • Someone who knows medicine – Who will know better what will sound appealing to a medical school admissions committee than someone who’s been through it herself?  A physician you’ve shadowed, a PI with whom you’ve worked, or a friend who’s already a medical student will help you hone the message of your Personal Statement.

Have you been brainstorming on your Personal Statement?  Let us know how we can help – and don’t forget to check out opportunities in your area for Personal Statement Workshops offered exclusively by Kaplan.

Ultimately, the Personal Statement is crucial to your success in applying to medical school.  So start writing!  By thinking through your essay, you’re helping define who you are – as a citizen of society, as a student, and as the physician you will be (not too long from now!).

This article is Part II in a seven-part series on Holistic Admissions.  For more information, check out:

Alex Macnow

Alex Macnow I graduated from Boston University with a BA in Musicology and am currently a fourth year in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. I took Kaplan to prep for my MCAT. After such a great experience with my course, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to teach and tutor hundreds of pre-health students for the MCAT, DAT, OAT and PCAT in both our Boston – Haymarket and Philadelphia Kaplan Centers. I am one of the Content Managers for Kaplan's new MCAT 2015 course. When I’m not preparing for residency or teaching MCAT, I enjoy playing classical piano, exploring new cuisines and traveling on road trips.

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