Application Essentials II: The Medical School Personal Statement

December 14, 2014
Alex Macnow

Going to med school to become a physician? Wow admissions officers with a great essay.

One possible angle into your med school personal statement: talk about the history of medicine and its relation to art.

Let’s start today with a seemingly simple question that you are going to have to consider before applying to med school: Who are you?

It may seem simple on the surface, but this can be one of the most challenging questions that premed students encounter on the medical school application or the MCAT. Yet, it’s the basic question posed in at least one major part of your application: the medical school personal statement.

There are a couple important themes to keep in mind while you’re coming up with the subject matter for your medical school personal statement—or, what many admissions officers refer to as “your interview in writing.” Check out a few of our handy personal essay FAQs:

What kind of questions will I be asked?

The question posed—or the essay prompt—will be surprisingly vague. The Association of American Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) prompt from the AMCAS Application is simply: “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.”

This broad net can prove both a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, it allows you the freedom to take your story in just about any direction, and what could be better than that? On the other, it can feel overwhelming if you overthink it.

How long should your personal statement be?

On the AMCAS Application, there is a 5300-character maximum, which equals about 1.5 pages, single-spaced, in 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 should I write?

Unlike the school-specific, tailored information you’ll give on your secondary applications, your AMCAS medical school statement will remain uniform among all the schools you apply to.

Since you’ll only have one version of the personal essay, it should not be directed towards any individual school. Use your secondary applications and essays to express your interests in individual schools.

What should you write about in your personal statement?

Even though the prompt for the medical school personal statement is so vague, it is generally understood that you have three major goals to accomplish in this essay. Focus the essay with these in mind, but don’t be afraid to be creative!

Why medicine?

Specifically, why an MD or a DO? Far too often, students write generic, impassioned passages about “wanting to help people.” While that is a completely valid reason to go to medical school, it doesn’t really explain why you want to become a doctor, to the exclusion of other health careers like nursing or physical therapy. It doesn’t really even explain why you want to go into medicine. Firefighters, teachers, plumbers, and landscapers 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 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?

What is unique about you?

Medical schools want to know that, when they admit you, you’ll contribute to the class in a unique and meaningful way.

Diversity in medical education is a HUGE topic in general, but medical schools want to admit a class that is diverse not just in demographics, but all facets, such as educational experiences, life challenges, medical interests, and more.

How does everything fit together?

You want your medical school personal statement to tell an intricate story about you—something a reader can get excited about and relate to. Rather than simply rewriting your résumé in paragraph form, construct your essay a theme that you can keep returning to.

Perhaps you’re a musicology major who’s also passionate about education and patient care. Focusing on the intersection between the arts and sciences both historically (see above The Agnew Clinic, a famous painting by Thomas Eakins, which hangs proudly in my alma mater) and in your own life could be a good launching-off point. Take it from me—it’s worked before!

Who should edit my med school essay?

This is a key (and often-overlooked) question. You want your med school essay to be a highly polished product that really wows admissions officers. To accomplish this, enlist the help of at least three editors:

Someone who knows you really well

Medical schools can spot a disingenuous personal statement a mile away. Get a best friend, parent, or significant other to call you on any bluffing or “gaming” of the essay. 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, by itself, keep you out of medical school. But any sloppiness or lack of clarity in your statement will subtly and collectively bring down the overall quality and effectiveness of your words.

Someone who knows medicine

Who should know better what will appeal to a medical school admissions committee than someone who’s already been there, done that? 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 your statement’s message.

If you are a current undergraduate students, your pre-med advisor certainly fits the bill.

Ultimately, the essay is crucial to your success in applying to medical school, so go ahead and start writing. By thinking through your essay, you’re helping define who you are as a citizen of society, a student, and the physician you’re well on your way to being!

Brainstorming about your personal essay? 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.

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

I. The Holistic Review Process

II. The Personal Statement

III. Secondary Applications

IV. Medical Extracurriculars and Experience

V. Non-Medical Extracurriculars and Experience

VI. Letters of Recommendation

VII. Interviews

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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