The personal statement is the underpinning of a successful application to medical school, graduate school, and MD/PhD programs. The statement provides admissions committees with a snapshot of who you are and why you have decided to pursue a particular career path above all else. While the following advice is broadly applicable, the MD/PhD applicants must take a more strategic approach to find balance across the Why MD/PhD and Significant Research essays. Each essay is an opportunity to highlight different aspects of your qualifications and establish a cohesive, compelling, and comprehensive narrative. I will address the Why MD/PhD and Significant Research essays in separate articles. The goal of this article is to dive deep into the best practices of writing an effective personal statement, and I will provide you with examples of weak personal statements so that you can avoid common pitfalls.
Getting started is indeed the hardest part. What story will you tell? What have you even experienced that could be engaging to the MD/PhD admissions committee? After spending the past several years focused on acquiring research and clinical experience, completing prerequisite coursework, and studying for the MCAT, this might be the first time in a while that you’ve been required to introspect and retrospect on all that you’ve been through and capture it in writing. I usually recommend you start from the beginning and reflect on your upbringing. What are your most salient experiences that left an indelible mark on your life’s trajectory and have encouraged you to pursue such a heroic career path? I still remember running to my baby sister’s rescue in my superman pajamas (with the cape) when she was choking on a hard candy. It could have been this childhood memory that guided my decision making towards becoming a doctor. While I didn’t write about this memory in my personal statement, the act of remembering is a critical part of the creative process. It takes time to evoke deep-seeded memories and reflect on their significance, and I encourage you to make the time for it.
How should one approach this process and begin drafting a personal statement? I went to the writing center at the university of my summer research program and sat down with an advisor who had a blank sheet of paper. She asked me to talk about all the experiences I can remember that have influenced me, positively or negatively, to pursue a career in medicine.
- This is important to note for MD/PhD applicants: the personal statement is principally used for medical school admissions and should be oriented as such to explain how you arrived at the decision to become a physician. Research can be mentioned in brief and select circumstances, but it should be more central in the Why MD/PhD and Significant Research essays. The personal statement is about your path to medicine.
As I began to recount my life’s story, I felt like I was rambling aimlessly. This is good. It’s the starting point from which you will refine the narrative over the next 10 months, and it will get better. Be vulnerable and speak openly. While I spoke, the advisor listened, observed my mannerisms, and wrote single words in bigger or smaller font. She was creating a concept map, using bigger font when I spoke with emotion and smaller font when it wasn’t as important.
I told a story about one night during my EMT training when I was in the back of the ambulance — bored beyond belief — counting the hours until my night shift ended while the paramedics pounded Monsters and 5-hour energy drinks in a gas station parking lot. A call came over the radio. There had been a hit-and-run on the highway, and the accident had left a car in disarray. In a moment, we were in route. We arrived at the scene, I hopped out of the ambulance and moved quickly toward the wreckage carrying the spinal board. The firefighters were already on-scene and were using the jaws of life to rip off the crumpled car door to get access to the person stuck inside. I helped remove the person and used c-spine precautions as my team secured her to the spinal board and onto the ambulance cot. We rushed backed to the ambulance and began to stabilize the patient, who was in critical condition. I placed on the ECG leads and watched helplessly as her heart rate plummeted into the 40s, prompting the energized paramedic to begin pushing drugs and supplying oxygen. I held her hand and spoke to her, trying to assess her level of consciousness; however, it was evident that she could not process the simple questions. All she did was count, from 1 to 10 and over again, moving her right hand in small, clockwise circles. I felt increasingly frantic, as the trauma center was still 15 minutes away. To my surprise, the patient remained stable, counting incessantly, until we arrived. On arrival, I drove the ambulance cot with the paramedic to the emergency room, where standing at the ready was a full team of physicians, nurses, and technicians prepared to take the reins and save the patient’s life. I still get chills as I write this memory. At the head of the bed, the chief physician was giving instructions to the team, who worked in concert to pinpoint and manage each problem with an impressive cohesion. I was transfixed. I stood wide-eyed in the corner of the room, watching real superheroes at work and buzzing with an energy that no amount of caffeine could ever give me.
With this narrative, the advisor wrote in big font and circled it. We identified many more themes during our conversation, leaving me with a blueprint of experiences to connect the dots. Your story certainly does not have to be all about medicine. I encourage you to reveal your personality, the goals that drive you, and the life experiences that have fulfilled you. By necessity of the prerequisites for applying to MD/PhD programs, everyone has clinical experiences. Only you can convey it through your unique lens, and this ability will differentiate you from the generic essays.
This brainstorming exercise is what I advise every student does before embarking on the writing process, and it is what I will help you do if you choose to work with me. Each person has a different introduction to medicine, whether through a family member who experienced illness or a family member who is a doctor. It doesn’t matter how you came to the decision to pursue medicine. What matters is that you appreciate the enormous responsibility of patient care and have taken steps to evaluate whether it is the right option for you. For example, my ambulance experience was memorable, and a gripping way to hook the reader in my personal statement, but it says nothing about my potential for a career in medicine. It is the actions you take that define you. My EMT training launched me into an exploration of emergency medicine. I worked as an emergency department technician and gained tremendous experience that allowed me to determine with certainty that I knew what I was signing up for and that I had an aptitude for the profession.
However, many students do not have such a straightforward path to medicine. Use this to your advantage. Demonstrate to the admissions committee how the unconventional or more circuitous path allowed you to gain confidence in your decision to become a doctor. Furthermore, address the question: why not instead become a physician’s assistant, nurse, or other healthcare provider? Each person must find their own path, and it’s the story and lessons gained along that way that make the difference between a good and great personal statement. To make an excellent personal statement, the writing needs to be on point, too.
Let me share some examples of what not to do from excerpts of real personal statements.
- Note: details have been changed to protect the writers’ identities.
“Brene Brown, a distinguished author who spent over 20 years studying vulnerability, noted in her book Daring Greatly that “owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.” What does “owning our story” mean? This is a question I was not interested in answering back in 2004, when I read this book. In fact, as a sophomore, I had completely different interests! Having volunteered for the sustainability organization in high school, I became interested in supporting the university’s sustainability goal of reducing residential water use in DC.
However, my interests changed in 2005, when I joined an organization known as Royal Toastmasters. The mission of the club was simple: to develop the speaking skills of all its members in order to foster a community of effective communicators. Having dealt with extreme social anxiety in the past, however, this was by no means a walk in the park. I often struggled with giving speeches in the club, stuttering and twitching after murmuring each word. As such, it was hard for me to connect with other members. Though I frequently felt undeserving of my club membership after seeing how others excelled at their communicative abilities, I continued to remain in the club. This was not because I somehow summoned the iron-willed confidence to not give up, but rather it was due to the incredibly reassuring remarks coming from the president at the time, Jon Snow.”
I know who Brene Brown is, and she’s great, but this is a personal statement, and the first statement is about someone else. I frequently see this approach of introducing another character into the essay, and while it can sometimes work to anchor a narrative, more often, it does not. As egoistical as it might seem, you must make the focus be on you, foremost, before shifting attention to influential figures, or preferably, to the lessons you gained from those figures. Most importantly, you should address how those lessons helped you to become the *outstanding* person you are today. Next, the quote isn’t that bad, but together with the rhetorical question, it starts to come across as cliché. It’s not your goal to show your literary writing skills; it’s to convey a compelling, unique story about your path to medicine and how your life experiences have prepared you to become a capable and thoughtful physician for all people. By the end of the first paragraph, I know little about this person, and the segue into volunteering with a sustainability organization is not clearly linked to the rest of the paragraph. The essay must flow naturally, don’t make the reader work to read it.
In the second paragraph, the writer introduces an experience that provides an opportunity to start finding themselves. This is great, but the delivery needs improvement. First, the wordiness. Instead of writing “to develop the speaking skills of all its members in order to foster a community of effective communicators”, state “to foster a community of effective communicators”. Brevity and Clarity are your friends in the personal statement, which is limited to 5300 characters including spaces. In addition, the applicant writes from a place of vulnerability, which I appreciate, but in the process comes off as anxious, self-conscious, and self-critical without awareness. Perhaps they overcome these traits later in the essay, but a busy reader might judge quickly and conclude that these aren’t qualities of a person ready for medical school. Indeed, you need to be confident, calm, compassionate and self-aware to succeed in medicine. Highlight your strengths. Avoid presenting weaknesses through negative language. Present the weaknesses as obstacles you have overcome on your path.
Finally, the paragraph ends with the writer expressing that they did not solve the problem, but instead relied on the help of the organization’s president, Jon Snow. Being able to embrace vulnerability and asking for help are signs of maturity, and I specifically look for these qualities when reviewing applications. However, the tone of this essay suggests passivity in this regard; one must be willing to look foolish if they aim to become better. Overall, I believe there is a lot of good content with poor delivery in this essay. I want to see more about how the applicant can take initiative to problem solve and overcome their insecurities with examples.
Take my word for it that the essay does improve thematically from here. The writer starts an organization called Daring Minds to combat student mental health through which they realize that by becoming a psychiatrist, they could continue helping to combat this problem throughout their career. It’s an excellent closing. However, the writer didn’t convince me that they have the problem-solving skills needed for that next step in training. A weak introduction is hard to overcome. How could they have written it differently?
“My path to medicine began with a speech impediment and a master class on the healing power of vulnerability. As a sophomore, I struggled to speak eloquently and feared public speaking events, yet I dreamed of having the confidence to give a great speech to a crowd of people. At first, I hesitated at opportunities that could have put me into uncomfortable situations that required public speaking. I felt stung by the loss of the experiences I missed out on as a result. This realization pushed me to make a change, and I joined a student organization called Royal Toastmasters, whose mission is to foster a community of effective communicators. I was terrified. I also went through with it and faced my discomfort. I made friends along the way with whom I learned to speak and who opened my eyes to the high prevalence of mental health problems in students. I gave a speech to a 60-person crowd at the annual banquet in which I declared that it was now my mission to advocate for student mental health.
In addition to joining student organizations that supported mental health, I started an organization called Daring Minds, which was inspired by Brene Brown’s book: Daring Greatly. The book describes how the process of finding oneself requires self-love and bravery, and this message particularly resonates with me. My public speaking experience exemplified it. Now, I felt motivated to use Daring Minds as a platform to help other students through the healing process with compassion. It is through this work that my interest in student wellness became a passion for psychiatric medicine.”
Here’s my rationale: the content of the personal statement overall was good, though it was organized poorly with too much extraneous, distracting information. There is a different pathos that emanates from the statement “my path to medicine began with a speech impediment,” compared to “…stuttering and twitching after murmuring each word”. In the former, the reader’s attention is piqued, and they wonder if you overcame it; the reader joins you on your narrative to solve this problem which led you to medicine. In the latter, it evokes a feeling of sorrow, imagining this person struggling in earnest to get a word out. With which feeling do you want to leave the reader? Further, the Brene Brown part doesn’t have to be cut altogether — it offers a nice, relatable sentiment, it just doesn’t belong in the first sentence.
Let’s try an another one:
“I had two feelings when I came to the US, helpless and useless. When I first came to the US as an immigrant at the age of 18, I felt in the way. There was no position in society that needed me, which I can do. However, when I became a freshman in university, I felt helpless because there was so much I did not know that other people did. As a late immigrant, I needed to be helped to know the country, language, system and culture more.
Compared to my mom, I come to the US at the right time. She lost all her energy when she came to the US at the age of 50. Compared to her, I am young enough to have the opportunity to start a new life in the US. However, I am also old enough to understand the feeling of other people as a recent immigrant. I feel the way they feel, and I experienced the same they experienced. If they have better healthcare, better knowledge of the medical system or their body and more sympathy and less of ignorance, they probably feel easier to live in the US. If my mom could have these, even if she worked in the health care system, it would make it easier to start a new life here. I want to help all the people that have the same experience as me.”
English as a second language is not a negative attribute — medicine needs a more diverse workforce. What English as a second language does mean, however, is that you might have to work extra hard to convey your message clearly, and you should have it proofread by a native speaker. In the first paragraph, the writer’s word choice is a bit dark and unclear, but you can see the theme (in bold) buried within. This is an exaggerated version of how I might approach the first personal statement edit. What are the central themes to organize the essay? What is the writer trying to say that needs clarification? In this case, being a late immigrant to the US caused the writer to feel like an outsider. They struggled to assimilate and manage cultural and language barriers after living their entire life in another country. They were vulnerable and dependent on others to navigate this foreign place.
In the second paragraph, the writer spends too many sentences comparing with their mother, but they do get to a critical point, in essence, that they can relate with other immigrants and people who feel like outsiders in any context. It’s evident that the writer is grateful for the opportunity to start their adult life in the US in ways their mother could not. They are excited to promote healthcare and help people, especially those people who find the medical system to be a foreign place and don’t seek preventative healthcare as a result. If you were to continue reading this application, it would become clear that this person is highly qualified to become a physician-scientist, and they had a successful admissions cycle.
In closing, everyone has weaknesses, and you shouldn’t be penalized if writing in academic English is one of them. Nevertheless, this is often the case. There’s usually at least one person on the admissions committee who believes that if you can’t talk the talk, you can’t walk the walk. If you want to succeed in MD/PhD admissions, you must aim for clear, compelling, concise communication as well as demonstrate that you can break down technical jargon into elegant scientific writing. This will come with experience and practice. In my next articles, I will break down the Why MD/PhD and Significant Research essays, respectively, to provide you with practical advice and examples to help you develop these communications skills sooner.
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