December 6, 2012

Application Essentials II: The Personal Statement

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: ...read more
November 30, 2012

Application Essentials I: The Holistic Review Process

Earlier this month, I had the great fortune of attending the 2012 AAMC Annual Conference in San Francisco, CA.  This meeting represents one of the largest gatherings of medical educators, premedical advisors, admissions officers, practicing physicians and students in the country, all with one common goal:  your education.  This is the group that writes the MCAT, runs the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) and creates informative resources like Careers in Medicine to help you plan your future medical career. One of the “hot topics” in medical admissions these days is holistic review.  While a full detailing of this process would probably take a half-dozen posts to explain, it boils down to the idea that an applicant should be evaluated on all of his or her credentials – not just GPA and MCAT score.  This has always been true, but schools that have committed to holistic review are taking it to the next level.  Holistic review gives balanced attention to an applicant’s experiences, attributes and academic metrics (what the AAMC refers to as E-A-M).  Rather than assessing an applicant’s personal statement, extracurricular activities and experience (both medically- and non-medically oriented), letters of recommendation, and interpersonal characteristics in the context of their scores, these parts of the application are dealt with on their own.  This is not to say that GPA and MCAT are decreasing in importance (in fact, as you might have learned from Kaplan’s Medical School Officer Survey Debrief last night, the MCAT is getting more important – 51% of medical school officers consider it the most important factor in medical admissions, up from 43% in last year’s survey).  What it does mean, though, is that each aspect of your application will now be looked at with an even finer-tooth comb, and every credential you present is now taking on more significance in the admissions decisions schools are making. What effect will holistic review have on medical schools?  As AAMC states, “[m]edicine is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, collaborative, and technology-enables, just as our society is growing more diverse, multicultural, and globally interconnected. … [Holistic review] assist[s] medical schools in establishing, implementing, and evaluating mission-driven, student diversity-related policies, processes, and practices that help build a physician workforce capable of and committed to improving the health of all.”­1  In other words, by diversifying the demographics and experiences of their incoming class, schools will be able to turn out physicians more representative of that school’s mission and – more importantly – able to respond to the ever-changing world of healthcare. So what does this mean for you?  Again, the processing of your application and attention to each facet of you – as a student, physician-to-be, and individual within society – will be taken to a higher level with more rigorous review.  But no worries!  We’ve got your back.  We’ve already talked plenty about metrics (see my posts on the average GPA and average MCAT scores for medical school applicants); so this is the kick-off for a series on the rest of your application. Sources: 1.  AAMC Holistic Review Project:  Achieving Improved Learning and Workforce Outcomes through Admissions.  AAMC.  May 2012. This article is Part I in a seven-part series on Holistic Admissions.  For more information, check out: ...read more
Applying to Med School
December 12, 2011

The Med School Personal Statement: Where To Start

There’s a great line in the 2000 British stop-motion animation film Chicken Run. After surviving a brush with death, Babs, the sweet, daft chicken deadpans, “All me whole life flashed before me eyes . . . It was really borin’.”

Some of you may be feeling a little bit like poor ol’ Babs as you stare at an empty Word document – or blank sheet of paper for you old-fashioned types – wondering how you’ll ever manage to craft a personal statement for your medical school primary application that is interesting, meaningful, and no longer than 5300-characters-including-spaces. You might be thinking, Well, I haven’t cured any major diseases. I haven’t performed solo at Carnegie Hall. So I don’t really know what will be interesting or unique to write about. But if this is what you’re thinking, you’re missing the point of the personal statement.

First, let’s be clear about what the personal statement is not. It’s not an autobiography. You should never, ever start your personal statement with, “I was born in a one-room log cabin on a farm in Kentucky.” First of all, that wasn’t you – that was Abraham Lincoln. And even if you were born in a one-room log cabin on a farm, that information is most likely not relevant to your passion for medicine today.

At the same time, the personal statement is also not a “greatest hits” album of your academic and extracurricular achievements. You’ll come across as a self-important jerk if your essay is just “First I did this. Then I did that. Then I got this award. Then I was honored for . . .” You get the point. Besides, you’ve already provided your greatest hits in the Coursework and the Work/Activities sections of the AMCAS application, so there’s no point in taking up valuable space repeating yourself.

Lastly, your essay is not a confessional. Nobody is all that interested in reading an extended apology for all your various shortcomings (such as that C- in first semester Orgo), failures, or character defaults. It’s also not a position paper. This is not the time or the place to offer your astute analysis and critique of health care reform efforts under the Obama administration, regardless of how well you know the issue.

So what is the personal statement? It’s personal, which means that it must be sincere, thoughtful, and open, and honest. These are your qualities, by the way; you reveal these hard-to-quantify attributes through your writing. It’s a statement of your motivation – or more accurately, a demonstration of your commitment to the mission of medicine.  You must show rather than tell. The personal statement is a focused narrative of your developing identification with and embodiment of the humanist commitments of the medical profession. It doesn’t promise the kind of doctor you’re going to be – and by kind, I don’t mean specialty. It demonstrates, it shows, the kind of care-taker you’ve already come to be. Medical school admissions committees want to see the record of your compassion, your humanism, your dedication to supporting the health and wellness of individuals and communities. They want to see your empathy in action; they want to know how you’ve embodied the qualities of an excellent physician.

If this sounds a bit grandiose, remember that no one expects you to have performed miracles. In fact, your narrative may tell a small, quiet story of gently applying a cool washcloth to a febrile toddler’s forehead, calming him down by clasping his small hand in yours. Or your narrative might describe how – as a premed art history major – you slowly, but powerfully, began to understand your love for interpreting art in order to understand the artist as a metaphor for your role as a care-taker in the building of relationships through the physicality of the body. The power of a well-written personal statement is not found in the drama of the events you describe, but in the depth of your reflection on the meaning of those events for your development as one who is already dedicating his or her life to supporting the wellness of individual people and communities.

Editor’s note: Students interested in learning more about writing the personal statement are invited to join one of Kaplan’s free Personal Statement Workshops. Simply visit KaplanMCAT.com and search for free events to find one that matches your schedule. 

...read more
Applying to Med School
April 19, 2010

The Personal Statement – Part 2

By Carleen Eaton, M.D. In January, I wrote about taking the first step towards crafting an outstanding personal statement. That initial phase involved generating ideas, anecdotes and examples to use when you sit down to write. Now that it is April, it is time to take those ideas and turn them into a cohesive document that will convince the admissions committee that you are a strong applicant, worthy of an offer to interview at their school. With a 5300 word limit, the personal statement for the primary application doesn’t give you a lot of space in which to tell your life’s story, so to make the most of each word, remember the following as you write: Open with your best material: The first and last paragraphs of an essay are the ones that make the greatest impact on the reader. Therefore, start out with your most interesting and engaging material. If the summer you spent volunteering at a hospice left the biggest impression on you, then it will likely leave the strongest impression on the reader as well. Begin with an anecdote about that time, and then fill in more about your initial interest in medicine later in the essay. Starting out with when you were five and played with a doctor’s kit and then going on to talk about your junior high biology class, your high school sports feats and then college will be make for a complete and chronological discussion of your life, but it isn’t a structure that will result in the best possible essay. Unify the essay: There are several devices for achieving a unified piece of writing. One is to develop a theme or themes. For example, if art has been very important in your life, you may weave in analogies, anecdotes and examples from art. However, be careful with this approach, as pushing the theme too far can end up sounding forced.  The underlying themes of the essay are going to be your desire to become a physician and your suitability for the profession, and writing with this constantly in mind will ensure that the essay is cohesive.  Another effective way to unify your writing is to allude back to earlier parts of the essay during the conclusion.  You don’t need to provide a complete summary of every topic that you hit upon during the body of the essay, but if you began the essay talking about research, a brief mention of research in the final paragraph will bring your statement full circle and make the ending more satisfying. Have a strong conclusion: The concluding paragraph should be concise and forceful. Imagine that you are sitting in front of the committee and have the opportunity to tell them one thing. What would it be? What is the message that you want the committee member who is reading this essay to walk away with? That should be in your conclusion. Use effective transitions: A personal statement can cover broad territory, including your personal, academic, work and other activities, which means that you will be shifting from topic to topic quite a bit.  Therefore, it is essential to use transition sentences that will signal to the reader that you are moving on to something new. These sentences do not need to be long, and in fact, sometimes all you will need is a phrase at the beginning of a sentence to act as a transition.  However, eliminating these sections in order to save space is a mistake. Without them, the statement will be disjointed and difficult to follow. The first draft is always the hardest and the best way to get it done is just to sit down and write. Get your thoughts on paper or on a computer screen, put the draft aside for a few days and then go back to it. When you do, go through the list above and shape your ideas into a personal statement that will grab the admissions committee’s attention immediately and keep them captivated until the last word. ...read more
Applying to Med School
March 22, 2010

Reapplying for Medical School

By Carleen Eaton, M.D. If the 2010 cycle will be your second (or third) application to med school, then you need to take a different approach than a first time applicant. Your goal is to differentiate your current application from the last one as much as possible, and to convince the committee that you are now deserving of a spot in the class. This means scrutinizing each section of the application and determining what is new or improved and making sure that those features stand out. In terms of timing, applying for back-to-back cycles may not be the best strategy if you have a major deficiency in your application, such as a very low GPA. Before you reapply, you need to determine the reasons for the unsuccessful application and then address them. Otherwise, you are likely to “use up” an application cycle without any real chance of admission. The result will be that you may end up applying a third time, which is less than ideal since some schools discourage a third application. This is not to say that a third time applicant will never be admitted, but it is more difficult. Instead, position yourself as strongly as possible before you reapply. Check out my November blog for ideas about how to use a year between applications most effectively. Once you have bumped up your MCAT score, improved your GPA or gained the clinical or research experiences lacking from your application, you will be ready to go forward. Here are some points to focus on as you fill out your application: 1. Personal Statement – Do not submit exactly the same personal statement as last time, especially if you are applying to some of the same schools again. Certain elements of the personal statement may remain the same, since, after all, your initial reasons for choosing medicine as a career have not changed. However, incorporate new elements such as achievements, adventures and activities from the past year and reword topics that you are retaining from the previous personal statement. Make sure that the opening and closing are new since these sections are essential in defining a piece of writing. Starting out with the same sentence or paragraph sets up the expectation that what follows will also be the same as last year. The personal statement needs to be well written, engaging and focused. Read your previous personal statement critically, or better yet, have an advisor or friend do so and get an honest assessment about the impact it made so that you can submit your best work this time around. 2. Work/Activities section – Adding clinical experiences and/or research to your list will enhance your application. Swap out less relevant activities to make room for at least a few activities that were not on your last application. 3.  Letters of Recommendation – Include at least one or two new letters that reflect your achievements since the last time you applied.  If you received a letter previously from someone with whom you still interact, such as a researcher whose lab you work in, then ask for an updated letter. 4.  List of Schools – Your application last time may have been competitive enough to get you into a med school, but just not competitive enough for the ones you had on your list. Reapplicants should have plenty of safety schools on their list (actually, all applicants should have plenty of safety schools on their lists). Use the MSAR (published by AMCAS)  to check out the schools’ statistics to formulate a list that will give you the best chance of admission somewhere. Applicants who succeed on a second or subsequent application are those who take the time to find the weaknesses in their application, fix them, and make sure that the application reflects this.  There are many med students and doctors who didn’t get in the first time around, so remember, an unsuccessful first (or even second) try, doesn’t mean that you have to change your career plans - just delay them a bit. ...read more
Applying to Med School
February 15, 2010

MD-PhD Programs

By Carleen Eaton, M.D. For applicants who are considering a career combining both medicine and research (a “physician scientist”), completing an MD-PhD program may be a good option.  Besides graduating with both an MD and a PhD, and thus receiving excellent preparation for a career in academic medicine, in most programs, you will attend med school tuition free and even receive a stipend for living expenses. However, these advantages need to be balanced against the drawback of spending an extra 3 to 4 years in school on top of the 4 years needed to obtain the MD, and the opportunity cost of starting your career later in life. While not insignificant, the financial aspect should not be the major factor in applying to these programs. An MD-PhD program is a major commitment and works well for those who are truly focused on a career in academic medicine and have a strong history of research experience. The term “MD-PhD program” applies to any program that combines both degrees; however, a subset of these programs are known as MSTPs (Medical Scientist Training Programs), meaning that they are NIH funded. Other MD-PhD programs receive funding from various sources and the stipend amounts and benefits vary. Both types of programs are highly competitive, although the MSTP programs are generally even more so. While MD-PhD programs also use the AMCAS application as a primary application, some importance differences for the MD-PhD applications are: 1. Essays – In addition to the personal statement, MD-PhD applicants also must write an MD-PhD statement and an essay describing their significant research experience. The MD-PhD statement should focus on why the applicant is seeking both degrees, while the significant research experience essay is a 10,000 character space allotted for an applicant to describe his or her research experiences. MD-PhD committees want to see that the applicant has delved into research enough to know that they are suited for it, enjoy it and want to spend their career doing it. While publications are not mandatory, they certainly help. Poster presentations and abstracts are also an asset to the application. 2.  Letters of Recommendation – MD-PhD programs require the same letters of recommendation as for the med school programs (1-2 science professor letters, 1 non-science professor letter for some programs and additional letters from clinical or other experiences) as well as one or more additional letters from faculty with whom the applicant worked in a research setting. 3. Interview Day – The typical med school interview day consists of one or two interviews, usually one with a faculty member and a med student interviewer, or both with faculty members. The MD-PhD interview process is more intense, consisting of additional interviews with physician scientists and PhDs who tend to focus in on the interviewee’s research background. While an MD-PhD program is a great pathway for those who are passionate about research and focused on a career as a physician scientist, it is a long, rigorous path and a decision to pursue it should be made carefully. If you are sure that the MD-PhD route is best for you, then  obtain as much quality research experience as you can before applying, talk to physician scientists about their careers and then get started writing all those essays. ...read more
Applying to Med School
January 25, 2010

Medical School: The Personal Statement – Getting Started

By Carleen Eaton, M.D. To a writer, there is nothing more intimidating than being faced with a blank screen. That sight induces the average person to check their e-mail, browse the web, grab a snack and do just about anything to avoid having to type a single character. While this technique will keep you in touch with your friends and ensure that you are up to date on breaking news, it won’t get your personal statement written – or at least not very quickly. At this point, you may not be ready to sit down and write your entire personal statement for the AMCAS application; however, it is not too early to start generating ideas and jotting those down. This way, you will avoid the dreaded blank screen and will instead be sitting down to a page full of notes and thoughts that will get you going.  In later entries, I’ll discuss how to choose among these ideas and shape them into a focused, engaging piece of writing. As you begin this process, keep in mind that the personal statement is not meant to be a recap of every activity, award, class and achievement that you have had in your premedical career. Instead, this is your chance to describe to the committee why you want to be a physician, what qualities you posses that would make you a good physician and help them to get to know who you are beyond just your GPA and MCAT score. Instead of turning the personal statement into a resume, choose a few of the more interesting, unique or meaningful experiences you have had and discuss those in greater depth. A fundamental principle of good writing is to “show don’t tell.” Use anecdotes and examples to illustrate your message. After all, saying “I am a hard worker.” is pretty boring, whereas stating “Although my shift had ended hours earlier, I stayed on, caught up in the intensity of the ER.” is more compelling and personal. The anecdotes you use don’t need to be overly dramatic and can be culled from both your medical and non-medical experiences. The first step is to jot down memorable events and situations. The best scenarios are those that that illustrate a point about your motivation to enter medicine or the skills and qualities that make you a great fit for the profession. These could be anything from recalling the day you finally got results from your research, to the first time you set foot in the O.R., or making it to the finals with your cross country team. This process takes time, but by writing down ideas as they come, you are developing a list of examples to draw from later on. With a little inspiration, and a lot of proofreading, you can turn your notes into a great personal statement that will grab the reader’s attention, keep them interested and leave them ready to offer you an interview so that they can find out more. ...read more

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