19th March 2023
The personal statement is one of the key factors in the med school admissions process. How you structure your statement and the message you convey through it will determine whether or not you get through to the next step, which is the interview. So what exactly are medical schools looking for in your personal statement and how do you craft one that will help you stand out from the other applicants? This article addresses these two crucial questions.
The number one thing that medical schools will be looking for is whether or not you have the attributes to make a good doctor. Being a doctor is more than just acing anatomy class. While your grades may indicate that you have the academic knowledge to excel in the rigorous coursework, what med school authorities want to know is whether you have the heart for the job and whether you are truly passionate and committed to your goals.
Are you genuinely interested in helping people? Many people associate being a doctor with fame, glory, glamour or power and this comes from the way doctors are often portrayed in movies and TV series. The reality couldn’t be more different and admissions authorities want to be sure that you know what you are getting into.
Are you patient and compassionate? This is a profession where most of the people you encounter are sick and scared. Besides being capable of making objective decisions you also need to be patient and empathise with what they are going through. Nobody wants to be treated by a doctor who is impatient and unkind.
Do you have above average communication skills? As a doctor you will have to communicate with nurses, other specialists, patients and patients’ families in order to ensure that your patients get the best care possible.
Are you committed to staying on the course? Studying to become a doctor is not easy. The curriculum is rigorous and depending on the specialty you choose, it could take about 5 to 8 years before you become fully qualified. Are you likely to drop out midway through the course or do you have it in you to dig deep and persevere?
Your personal statement is your platform for making a strong case for yourself and convincing the med school admissions panel that you have the non-academic skills required for medicine and that you won’t give up when the going gets tough.
Covering all of these aspects in a one-page personal statement can be challenging. While most medical schools have similar criteria for writing the personal statement, some institutions may be very specific about the skills and attributes they want to see in the essay. If you are sending in applications to more than one school, it is a good idea to first check to see if they’ve specified any criteria on their website and then tweak your personal statement to ensure that it meets their specifications.
It’s tempting to start with a story that will hopefully tug at the reader’s heartstrings (My grandmother suffered from a debilitating disease and my goal is to help others who may be suffering from the same condition). This is one of the weakest openings and chances are high the reader will not bother to go any further. You need more than that to demonstrate your passion for helping people. Feeling compassionate about one family member is drastically different from dealing with hundreds of strangers from all walks of life.
Also avoid shock tactics, funny anecdotes or grandiosity. Your essay should not aim to shock, entertain or boast. What is important is to stay focused on demonstrating your commitment and passion for medicine by writing an honest, sincere account of your experiences and how they moved and motivated you towards this career.
Experts advise writing your introduction last. After you’ve finished composing the first draft of your essay, read through it and pick one sentence that you think is most compelling and stands out. Use that as your introduction and re-organise your essay.
Actions do speak louder than words and nowhere is this more evident than when talking about your clinical experiences. You can write reams about how you love helping people and how you are sure about pursuing a career in medicine but if you have not actually done anything to help anyone, these are just empty words. Your clinical experiences count – a lot.
This does not mean having a long list of places where you volunteer every alternate weekend. Experts warn against simply naming places where you have worked or volunteered. Whether you’ve spent time shadowing a doctor, doing a medical placement in a resource poor country or volunteering at your local care home, what is important is to reflect on the time you spent there and talk about the experiences that moved you.
Reflect on your experiences, don’t just describe what you did, reflect on what you learned from the experience and how it has influenced your decision to pursue medicine.
Be careful not to use overly complicated language. Trying to navigate complex words and phrases will detract from your main message. Use simple words that deliver your message clearly. Avoid experimenting with amusing fonts and odd margins. Basic formatting guidelines have the most impact as the focus is on the message, not the packaging.
Write in your own voice and be true to yourself. Don’t try to write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. Write about what motivates you, your unique experiences, and how they have shaped your desire to pursue medicine.