How to Write a Personal Statement for Medical School

The following piece was written by Dr. Michelle Finkel. Michelle has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former Harvard Medical School faculty member. She is the founder of Insider Medical Admissions.

At first glance, medical school admissions might seem a far cry from the subjects of reality television confessionals. The players are stalwart, steady characters who live restrained lives and channel their passions with extreme discipline. Yet the admissions game is arguably one where the drama is real, the intensity is palpable, and the stakes are high. There are winners and losers, with thin margins separating one group from the other. In that spirit, I submit to you these true confessions from my time as an admissions decision-maker to help you understand the gritty underbelly of the process that sifts through hordes of aspiring candidates and determines who makes the cut.  

For the faint of heart, be warned: It is never pretty to see how the sausage gets made.

Several years after writing my personal statements for medical school and emergency medicine residency, I found myself reading essays and making admissions decisions as a Harvard Medical School faculty member. In assessing application essays, first at Harvard and now as a professional medical admissions advisor for over six years, I have learned firsthand that certain personal statement techniques fly and others do not. A candidate’s approach can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection at his/her dream institution.

So, in keeping with the realty show theme, I’ll start this first entry in my series of personal statement blogs with a revelation: 

If a personal statement is filled with flowery, empty language, and platitudes about wanting to help humanity, I imagine the applicant wearing a Miss America Pageant tiara.

The rule I want you to remember here is this: All stuff, no fluff. (No Miss America clichés!) The medical personal statement should be a persuasive document that convinces medical schools that you are worthy of spot at their institutions, which means it should include facts about what makes you special – your achievements. 

Just like a lawyer does when s/he is trying a case in front of a judge, you must persuade with evidence. Saying you are a caring person or want to make the world a better place is not compelling, and those claims do not distinguish you from the scores of other applicants competing with you. You need to prove your value and your distinctiveness with your academic, clinical, research, community service, leadership, international, and teaching achievements. To the admissions reader, you are what you do – not what you say. 

Every part of your essay should be distinctive, highlighting your unique qualities through your accomplishments. If there is even a phrase in your personal statement that could have been written by someone else, omit.

My next revelation: Occasionally, I feel an applicant has mistaken me for his/her mother, wasting precious space expounding on his/her childhood dream of becoming a doctor.

Rest assured that unlike Mom, your essay reader doesn’t plan to show his/her friends the photo of you in scrubs from Halloween those many years ago, and you can't make any assumptions about your reader’s unconditional support of your endeavors. Crafting a paragraph (or two) about your childhood doctor Halloween costume has several fatal flaws: First, despite the fact that applicants should know better, the tactic is (sadly) overused. Also, these stories do not engage your reader nor further your candidacy because they are not built on evidence of your distinctive accomplishments. So, you’ve wanted to study hepatology since you were a baby? How does that support your being a great future physician or leader in medicine? It doesn’t, which is why admissions readers will fall asleep when reading about it.

Remember: if you spend too much space talking about your dreams, there's a good chance it will leave your reader snoozing. 

My next confession: I do not do independent research or go back and forth checking an applicant’s supporting documents if s/he writes something that isn’t clear.

I remember learning an interesting fact several years ago: When small children do not understand something, they simply tune it out and start to engage in another activity. Children – and adults - do not like being confused, and you can’t blame them. In some medical school applicants’ personal statements, candidates make the mistake of obscurely referring to a crowning, distinguishing accomplishment without explaining it.

I remember a talented applicant I advised a few years ago who showcased an award she had won. She listed the name, but didn’t explain what it was. When I asked her, she told me the award was an academic honor given to only the top 1% of students out of several thousand. Had she not taken my advice and rewritten the section, her admissions readers wouldn’t have given her an ounce of credit for that extraordinary accomplishment. What you fail to adequately explain counts against you.

On a related topic, don’t expect a reader to understand something in your essay because it’s explained in our AMCAS® activities. Different faculty members will approach the application in different ways, so – to get “full credit” for your accomplishments - you need to assume that your reader is seeing your essay first, independent of your AMCAS® activities. Bottom line: ensure your personal statement can stand alone and doesn't rely on your AMCAS® activities' section for clarification.

You've heard it here first: Your med school admissions essay reader is a sleep-deprived skeptic with the attention span of a toddler and very basic cognitive abilities.

Visit Insider Medical Admissions for more information, or check out Dr. Finkel on Facebook and Twitter.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.