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Going Deep in Your Med School Personal Statement

Scuba diver swimming in ocean

Let’s not kid ourselves: applying to medical school is stressful. There are all the hoops that you need to jump through before even starting an application. There’s also the interview process and the tailoring the application to show your commitment to medicine. And then there’s the med school personal statement.

What exactly is the personal statement? For medical schools, instead of requiring applicants to write the standard college admissions essays--you know, the ones that ask you what you are passionate about and what you learned from failure--applicants must answer an open-ended question: why do you want to pursue a career in medicine?

The question itself shouldn’t be difficult, especially if you’ve been aspiring to be a doctor ever since you were a kid, but the way that you answer the question can pose some challenges.

So what's the biggest challenge to writing a med school personal statement?

One of the common misconceptions about a personal statement of any kind is that you need to go for breadth and not depth. Students want to tell med schools that they’ve done it all and end up crafting personal statements that read like jumbled memories of hospital experiences, research papers, and patient interactions. Thankfully your resume or curriculum vitae can provide the overview of your medical background.

The personal statement, on the other hand, is a different animal. And there is a key word in the phrase itself: personal. In other words...

  • The strongest personal statements remove excessive resume information to make room for personality and feelings.

  • The best personal statements expand on ideas and provide a face to the application--just like essays for undergraduate admissions do.

There is no formula that you need to follow, but you should know that including as much honesty and openness into your words can go a long way--and will really set you apart from your competition.

What do actual people write about then?

A sample of personal statements from Stanford’s med school students shows that there are many overlaps in stories. A lot of people come to medicine after an accident that they or someone close to them suffered. Some people have known they want to be doctors since age five; others have taken a path less traveled from, say, professional ice skating to medicine.

You should not be worried about being so unique that you compromise being yourself. You should just explain where you have come from and where you hope to go.

What should you include?

2-3 experiences that serve a single theme and illustrate why you want to pursue a career in medicine.

These experiences should show the following:

  • moments that made a breakthrough in your understanding of medicine

  • what being a doctor means to you

  • how you still have room for growth.

Read an example from an actual person.

This is from one of the Stanford personal statements:

Volunteering in the palliative care unit of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, I have interacted with patients distressed by unexpected paralysis to patients suffering from terminal diseases like AIDS. One afternoon while I was volunteering, I was warned that room 21 would be very demanding. After responding to three calls in ten minutes, I asked if she would like some company. Her name was Ruth and she was paralyzed from the waist down from a fall. I held her hand and listened to her as she sobbingly told me her fears of losing independence and burdening her busy surgeon son. I reassured her that she could remain independent even if she couldn't walk and her son would not consider caring for her a burden. As I was preparing to leave the room so she could rest, she said "Thank you. You treated me like a person, not a patient." Although I had not cured her paralysis or lessened her pain, I did make Ruth feel loved and cared for that afternoon. The satisfaction I felt knowing I had made her difficult time a little better is something I will never tire of or take for granted.

There are a few things to note:

  1. The applicant wrote about a hospital experience with a patient. Many people do this. Admissions staff expect it. The key is how you handle the standard “patient interaction” story.

  2. The applicant goes into the details of the patient interaction. We readers not only understand the basics of the interaction--such as location (Northwestern Memorial Hospital) and the applicant’s role at the time (volunteering)-- but also get the specifics of the scene.

  3. The applicant describes how they felt about the experience as it happened and what it meant to them.

  4. The applicant shows that they handled a highly emotional situation with maturity and composure. They show initiative when asking the patient if she wants company after getting several calls from her. The applicant reads between the lines and reveals empathy and leadership. This is so important and cannot be conveyed without this experience being told like a story.

Now let’s imagine this paragraph as how you may want to write it:

Volunteering in the palliative care unit of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, I have interacted with patients distressed by unexpected paralysis to patients suffering from terminal diseases like AIDS. Although I have not cured the patients, I do make them feel loved and cared for every time I’m there. The satisfaction I feel knowing I have made their difficult times a little better is something I will never tire of or take for granted.

Both paragraphs are getting at the same idea...

  • the applicant has volunteered

  • there has been a wide variety of patient interactions

  • the applicant has been happy to make personal connections.

But that’s not the point.

This is what makes a med school personal statement stand out:

The personal statement is not about broad strokes of experiences--can you imagine several paragraphs like the second one in a personal statement? You basically are writing a generic readout of a med school applicant.

What makes the first paragraph so meaningful and emotionally resonant is that it goes deep--it takes the reader to a specific scene, a single night, one that made all the difference. We may even feel a little bit teary from reading that paragraph, because it contains the real concerns of the patient mixed with the actions of the applicant. The brilliant connection between patient and applicant is on full display: it isn’t implied; it isn’t shorthanded. It is illustrated with clear and concise imagery.

And it's wonderful.

[The University of Georgia has some other great pieces of advice on how to approach the med school personal statement.]

Med school admissions season has just started in Texas, and every day more and more students are submitting their applications. At B2A, we want to help you make the best med school personal statement possible, so we have trained professionals ready to help craft the best statement. While getting into med school definitely requires a full knowledge of science, you can’t get to healing the heart without the art. Check out our application essay services!

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