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Write a First Draft of Your Medical School Application’s Personal Statement

You will need to include a personal statement with your medical school application. Through your personal statement, you can distinguish yourself from other medical school applicants by highlighting your personal qualities. To craft the best personal statement, you need an organized approach.

With a basic outline, an overarching theme, and your list of ideas, you have the tools to write your first complete draft. Complete doesn’t mean “perfect” or even “great”. It just means “done.” The first draft is just the starting point and is meant to get the process going.

Start with a draft that is too long and then condense later. Aiming for a first draft that is between 120 percent and 150 percent of the final length gives you room to simply write but isn’t unmanageably long. Later, you can eliminate unnecessary material in stages until you have a tightly written essay in which every word matters.

Here are some guidelines now that you’re into the actual writing:

  • Show, don’t tell. A statement such as “I spend a lot of time shadowing in the hospital and really enjoy it” is not only boring but also vague. Instead, draw a picture with your words that allows the reader to come to the conclusion about what you did or learned.

    For example, say, “I watched intently as the surgeon made a single, precise incision.” The reader can easily infer that you were deeply engaged in your OR experience and that you’ve taken the time to explore medicine firsthand.

  • Be descriptive. This tip is closely related to the preceding point. Through imagery, you can create a scene and place yourself within it. Instead of saying that “I volunteer at the front desk of a busy clinic,” try “Arriving for my shift at the front desk each morning, I pass through the clinic’s bustling waiting room.”

    The first statement sounds generic and isn’t particularly informative. The second helps the reader easily visualize you in a medical setting; the “bustling waiting room” signals that the clinic is busy without directly stating so.

  • Have strong transitions between topics. Link a paragraph to the previous one through the transition sentences. By moving smoothly from topic to topic, your statement will read as a unified whole, not as disparate subjects.

    For example, if one paragraph discusses your work at a medical mission in Costa Rica and the next one focuses on your volunteer work in a clinic serving primarily Spanish-speaking patients, you can link the two paragraphs through a sentence such as “I arrived back in the United States a month later, eager to use my greater fluency in Spanish to serve communities closer to home.”

    This sentence ties together two adjacent paragraphs by mentioning the main topic of each. In the next sentence, you can go on to discuss your volunteer work at the community clinic without making the reader feel jarred by the switch to a new subject.

  • Be clear and direct. Aim for clarity in your writing. Filling the essay with deliberately complex sentences and pretentious vocabulary doesn’t make you sound smarter. It just makes the essay frustrating to read.

  • Vary your sentence structure. A statement with too many similarly structured sentences is akin to a person speaking in a monotone voice. Therefore, don’t start several sentences in a row with any single type of structure, such as “I [verb].” Intersperse brief sentences among longer ones; too many short sentences together sound choppy, while too many long ones clustered are difficult to follow.

  • Use your own writer’s voice. Your writing is as unique as your actual voice. Your distinct voice will come through in your statement as long as you don’t let it get watered down by too many suggestions from other people.

    Getting input from one or two trusted advisors or friends is fine, and having someone else proofread your statement is essential, but writing isn’t something that is done by committee. With four or five different people involved, you’re likely to get conflicting opinions and to end up with a disjointed piece of writing that lacks personality. This statement should include what is meaningful to you, in your words.

  • Be accurate. Applicants often worry that their backgrounds aren’t exciting enough to create a great personal statement. The misconception is often that they should’ve had a single life-changing moment to discuss in the essay.

    For most people, though, the decision to become a doctor was a gradual one and didn’t take place one dark and stormy night. If you try to force your story to be something it’s not, that will show in your writing.

    Keep in mind too that the personal statement is frequently a source for interview questions, and even the most carefully spun tale comes apart under pressure.

  • Don’t criticize physicians. What would you think if you read an applicant’s personal statement that discussed the incompetence of the cardiologist treating her father and her vow to “never be like him”?

    Would you think that she attacked a profession she hoped to join in order to win her points for her daring? That she hoped to be seen as medicine’s savior? At best, evaluators may see an applicant’s criticizing physicians as naïve; at worst, it will make physician-readers defensive or annoyed.

    Stick to discussing positive physician role models and the enormous good that medicine does. You can still acknowledge the challenges physicians face, but this essay isn’t the place to air your grievances. If you aspire to affect change, you can do it much more easily in a few years with “Doctor” in front of your name.

  • Take breaks between drafts. A fresh look at your statement will make it easier for you to spot weaknesses and to correct them. If you get stuck or feel that you’re becoming stale, set the essay aside for a few days.

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