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Organize Your Medical School Application’s Personal Statement

The personal statement you include with your medical school application tells the application committee who you are. Through your personal statement, you can distinguish yourself from other medical school applicants. To craft the best personal statement, you need an organized approach. After brainstorming ideas and selecting a theme, you’re ready to start organizing your thoughts into a clear, logical story.

An essay that makes a weak start, jumps around, or trails off won’t do its job even if the content is stellar. Before you start writing, determine the topic of each paragraph and the order you’ll present them in. You don’t need to make an exhaustive outline, but without a basic road map in place, you may end up writing along only to realize you’ve hit a dead end.

Follow these principles to generate an effective structure for the statement:

  • Start with your strongest material. The first paragraph is the one that either makes the reader eager to read what happens next or so bored he just skims through. If you job shadowed the surgeon general, don’t begin your statement by talking about the time you dissected a frog in 7th grade biology class, even though that occurred first.

    Not presenting your topics in chronological order does make transitions more challenging, but the payoff is worth it. So although you shouldn’t bounce around in time a lot, going for a great opening and then transitioning the reader to the back story is okay.

  • Have a goal for each paragraph. Each paragraph should have a function; if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. The length limits leave no room for fluff, so every paragraph must count, and none should be redundant or overly similar to another. If you don’t know what you’re trying to say in a paragraph, neither will the admissions committee.

    Select the best ideas from your list and determine what function they can serve in the essay and how you can build a paragraph around them.

    For example, one paragraph may focus on the theme of understanding the realities of medicine and not just its rewards. The paragraph may include a description of your experience job shadowing a surgeon and seeing the sheer stamina it takes to stand in the OR for long hours, performing an incredibly intense and demanding job.

    The goal of this paragraph is to discuss qualities you possess — such as perseverance, a strong work ethic, and adaptability — that will allow you to succeed in these challenging situations. To make the point convincingly, you should also provide examples discussing how you’ve demonstrated or developed these qualities.

  • Aim for five to seven paragraphs. This number is enough to allow you to cover plenty of topics so that your story will have breadth but not so many that you end up with a choppy essay.

    This range isn’t a hard-and-fast rule but rather a guide. Some writers are so capable of transitioning seamlessly from one topic to another that even using eight or nine paragraphs works beautifully. Others have a style that fits better with fewer, more-robust sections. Work with your writing style and the material you have to come up with an optimal number.

  • Keep the conclusion concise. Don’t attempt to introduce a bunch of new ideas at the end or do an exhaustive recap of what you’ve already covered. You can use the conclusion to finish a story you started in the first paragraph, allude to the beginning in some other way to bring the essay full circle, or provide final words about your commitment to medicine and suitability for the profession.

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