What Your Medical School Essay Reader is Thinking

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.

If you haven’t yet had a chance, please take a look at my last piece on writing a medical school personal statement. As I mentioned then, I wrote my personal statements for medical school and emergency medicine residency without much of a clue as to what went on behind the closed doors of medical admissions committees. But I quickly gained a lot of insight when - years later - 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 adviser for over six years, I have learned that – as much as it’s hard to believe - faculty are people too: They don’t want to be bored. They need to be convinced. And they don’t want to miss dinner (keep your essay streamlined and succinct).

My last entry had a reality show theme, so I’ll continue in that vein, offering you more of my confessions about reading personal statements:

Creative non-conformists with wacky personal statements make me shutter.

There is no question that being different is an asset in medicine. Those who think outside the box consider diagnoses that others miss, craft approaches to tough patients that others don’t conceive of, and come up with solutions to systemic problems that can positively change medicine as a whole. However, being different does not mean being unprofessional.

Yes, you want to distinguish yourself in your personal statement, but you want to do that by showcasing your unique and impressive pre-professional accomplishments, not by submitting a zany essay. Think of it this way: It would be a shame to annihilate your career goal because you’ve made a reader cringe when you were simply trying to write imaginatively.

This is not to say your personal statement should be boring! By using good writing techniques – crafting a catchy intro, using robust language, even choosing a compelling sequence – you can write an outstanding essay while still showcasing your accomplishments.

For the skeptic who insists, “Michelle, I’m special. I can do something wild and not scare off the reader,” I will tell you the following anecdote: In all of the time I read essays at Harvard, I remember only one applicant who submitted a truly wacky essay who still received rave reviews (there was a lively discussion about his weird personal statement, however, before he got the thumbs up). This person was a true superstar applicant. He came to our program, was loved by patients and staff alike, and eventually became an emergency medicine chief resident. The point of this story? I remember him because he was an outlier – the only applicant in years of assessing candidates whose strange essay did not kill his candidacy. Much like CPR, the vast majority of eccentric essay writers don't respond to heroic efforts to save their candidacy.

Take home point:  You get one bullet. Don’t use it to shoot yourself in the foot.

When an applicant does not put a lot of work into his/her essay, I do not put a lot of consideration into his/her candidacy.

I’m amazed at how many applicants study hard for the MCAT, prepare zealously for tests, and yet don’t spend the time necessary to write a strong essay. Of course top grades and competitive MCAT scores are essential for a viable medical school candidacy (you must be this high to ride), but the essay is the admission committees’ clearest window into what you’ve done and what your priorities are. It is your way of distinguishing yourself colorfully. Conversely, it allows the committee a means to screen out applicants whose lack of effort or poor judgment is reflected in the personal statement. 

Writing a great essay takes work and a lot of lead time. Before you hit the keyboard, consider alternate approaches – three or four topics for your introduction, for example. Also, make a list of all of the accomplishments you want to highlight. Moreover, don't overlook the basics: Start with an outline to ensure sound organization, develop graceful transitions between paragraphs, and provide convincing examples that support your assertions. 

Don't let the red ink frighten you. Expect to write ten or more revisions of the personal statement before you are ready to submit. Get help from someone who has extensive medical admissions experience by accessing the resources available to you: If you are fortunate to have an adviser, relative, or family friend who has sufficient expertise, ask that person to review multiple drafts. 

You may not require the services of an experienced admissions consultant. A motivated applicant who has strong interpersonal and communication skills and full access to sound medical advising can not only survive, but thrive in the applications game. However, for those applicants whose advising resources are less optimal, who are targeting highly competitive institutions or programs, who are applying with specific geographic constraints, who are coming from lesser-known or international institutions, or who do not feel sufficiently confident in their current writing and interviewing skills, the right admissions consultant can make a positive difference with long-lasting consequences.

Bottom line: Writing your medical essay is not the time to pull an all-nighter.

Now, leverage the knowledge I’ve given you above to anticipate a future reader’s objections so that you can strengthen your personal statement and reach your career goals.


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.