Guide to Writing a Medical School Personal Statement

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Don't underestimate the importance of your personal statement in your medical school application. Your GPA and MCAT scores show that you are academically capable, but they do not tell the admissions committee what type of person you are. Who you are matters, and the personal statement is the place to tell your story.

Tips for a Winning Med School Personal Statement

  • Make sure your personal statement is "personal." It needs to capture your personality and interests. What makes you uniquely you?
  • Clearly and convincingly present your reasons for wanting to attend medical school.
  • Don't summarize your activities, accomplishments, or coursework. Other parts of your application will convey that information.
  • Use logical organization, flawless grammar, and an engaging style.

The medical school admissions process is holistic, and the admissions folks want to enroll students who are articulate, empathetic, and passionate about medicine. Your personal statement provides you an opportunity to make the case that you have what it takes to succeed in medical school and that you will contribute to the campus community in positive ways.

You will want to put significant thought and time into your personal statement since it will play a role in all of your medical school applications. Nearly all medical schools in the United States use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) to manage their applications, much like hundreds of undergraduate institutions use the Common Application. With AMCAS, the prompt for the personal statement is pleasingly (and perhaps frustratingly) broad:

Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.

This simple prompt allows you to write about almost anything, but some topics will be much more effective than others.

Choosing Personal Statement Topics

A medical school personal statement is relatively short (less than 1/3 the length of this article), so you'll need to be selective when deciding what to include. As you identify your areas of focus, always keep the prompt in mind—your personal statement needs to explain why you want to go to medical school. If you find yourself straying from that goal, you'll want to refocus and get back on track.

Successful medical applicants typically include several of these topics in their personal statements:

  • A meaningful academic experience. Did you take a specific class that truly fascinated you or convinced you that you want to pursue a career in medicine? Did you have a professor who you found inspiring? Explain how the academic experience affected you and how it relates to your current desire to go to medical school.
  • A research or internship experience. If you had the opportunity to conduct research in a science laboratory or intern at a medical facility, this type of hands-on experience is an excellent choice for inclusion in your personal statement. What did you learn from the experience? How did your attitude towards medicine change when you worked side-by-side with medical professionals? Did you gain a mentor from the experience? If so, explain how that relationship affected you.
  • A shadowing opportunity. A significant percentage of medical school applicants shadow a doctor during their undergraduate years. What did you learn about the real-world practice of being a doctor? If you were able to shadow more than one type of physician, compare those experiences? Does one type of medical practice appeal to you more than another? Why?
  • Community service. Medicine is a service profession—a doctor's primary job duty is helping others. The strongest medical school applications show that the applicant has an active history of service. Have you volunteered at your local hospital or free clinic? Have you helped raise money or awareness for a health-related issue? Even service that has nothing to do with the health professions can be worth mentioning, for it speaks to your generous character. Show that you aren't in this profession for you, but for others including those who are often underserved and underrepresented.
  • Your personal journey. Some students have a personal history that is integral to their desire to become a doctor. Did you grow up in a medical family? Did serious health concerns of family or friends raise your awareness of the work doctor's do or motivate you to want to solve a medical problem? Do you have an interesting background that would be an asset to the medical profession such as fluency in more than one language or an unusual range of cultural experiences?
  • Your career goals. Presumably, if you are applying to medical school, you have a career goal in mind for after you earn your M.D. What do you hope to accomplish with your medical degree. What do you hope to contribute to the field of medicine?

Topics to Avoid in Your Personal Statement

While you have many choices about the type of content you can include in your personal statement, there are several topics that you would be wise to avoid.

  • Avoid discussion of salary. Even if one factor that draws you to medicine is the potential to earn a lot of money, this information does not belong in your personal statement. You don't want to come across as materialistic, and the most successful medical students love medicine, not money.
  • Avoid early childhood stories. A brief anecdote about childhood can be fine in a personal statement, but you don't want to write entire paragraphs about your visit to a hospital in second grade or how you played doctor with your dolls as a young child. The medical school wants to get to know the person you are now, not the person you were over a decade ago.
  • Avoid presenting television as an inspiration. Sure, your interest in medicine may have begun with Grey's Anatomy, House, The Good Doctor or one of the dozens of other medical dramas on television, but these shows are fiction, and all fail to capture the realities of the medical profession. A personal statement that focuses on a television show can be a red flag, and the admissions committee may worry that you have some sanitized, exaggerated, or romanticized notion of what it means to be a doctor.
  • Avoid talk of school rankings and prestige. Your choice of a medical school should be based on the education and experience you will get, not the school's U.S. News & World Report ranking. If you state that you are applying exclusively to the top-ranked medical schools or that you want to attend a prestigious school, you may come across as someone who is more concerned with surfaces than substance.

How to Structure Your Personal Statement

There is no single best way to structure your personal statement, and the admissions committee would get quite bored if every statement followed the exact same outline. That said, you do want to make sure each point you make in your statement flows logically from what precedes it. This sample structure will give you a good starting point for conceptualizing and crafting your own personal statement:

  • Paragraph 1: Explain how you became interested in medicine. What are the roots of your interest, and what about the field appeals to you and why?
  • Paragraph 2: Identify an academic experience that affirmed your interest in medicine. Don't simply summarize your transcript. Talk about a specific class or classroom experience that inspired you or helped you develop the skills that will help you succeed in medical school. Realize that a public speaking, writing, or student leadership class can be just as important as that cellular biology lab. Many types of skills are important for physicians.
  • Paragraph 3: Discuss a non-academic experience that has affirmed your interest in medicine. Did you intern in a biology, chemistry or medical laboratory? Did you shadow a doctor? Did you volunteer at a local hospital or clinic? Explain the importance of this activity to you.
  • Paragraph 4: Articulate what you will bring to the medical school. Your essay shouldn't be entirely about what you will get out of med school, but what you will contribute to the campus community. Do you have a background or experiences that will enrich the diversity of campus? Do you have leadership or collaborative skills that are a good match for the medical profession? Do you have a history of giving back through community service?
  • Paragraph 5: Here you can look to the future. What are your career goals, and how will medical school help you achieve those goals.

Again, this is just a suggested outline. A personal statement may have four paragraphs, or it may have more than five. Some students have unique situations or experiences that aren't included in this outline, and you may find that a different method of organization works best for telling your story.

Finally, as you outline your personal statement, don't worry about being exhaustive and covering everything you have done. You'll have plenty of space elsewhere to list and describe all of your extracurricular and research experiences, and your transcript will give a good indication of your academic preparation. You don't have a lot of space, so identify a couple important experiences from your undergraduate years and a couple character traits you want to emphasize, and then weave that material into a focused narrative.

Tips for Personal Statement Success

Well-structured, carefully-selected content is certainly essential to a successful medical school personal statement, but you need to consider a few more factors as well.

  • Watch for commonplace and cliché statements. If you claim that your primary motivation for becoming a doctor is that you "love helping others," you need to be more specific. Nurses, auto mechanics, teachers, and waiters also help others. Ideally your statement does reveal your giving personality, but make sure you stay focused on the specific type of service doctors provide.
  • Pay careful attention to length guidelines. The AMCAS application allows 5,300 characters including spaces. This is roughly 1.5 pages or 500 words. Going under this length is fine, and a tight 400-word personal statement is far preferable to a 500-word statement filled with digressions, wordiness, and redundancy. If you aren't using the AMCAS form, your personal statement should never go over the stated length limit.
  • Attend to grammar and punctuation. Your personal statement should be error-free. "Good enough" isn't good enough. If you struggle with grammar or don't know where commas belong, get help from your college's writing center or career center. If necessary, hire a professional editor.
  • Use an engaging style. Good grammar and punctuation are necessary, but they won't bring your personal statement to life. You'll want to avoid common style problems such as wordiness, vague language, and passive voice. A strong statement pulls the reader in with its engaging narrative and impressive clarity.
  • Be yourself. Keep the purpose of the personal statement in mind as you write: you are helping the admissions officers get to know you. Don't be afraid to let your personality come through in your statement, and make sure your language is natural to you. If you try too hard to impress your reader with a sophisticated vocabulary or jargon-filled description of your research experiences, your efforts are likely to backfire.
  • Revise, revise, revise. The most successful medical applicants often spend weeks if not months writing and rewriting their personal statements. Be sure to get feedback from multiple knowledgeable people. Be meticulous, and revisit your statement many times. Almost no one writes a good statement in a single sitting.