We tend to recall the five-paragraph essay model from our middle school years with a certain degree of disdain. Why should a basic model easily championed by third-graders be applicable to a statement so important that it may determine the outcome of my entire career? Yet, as one moves on to more complex educational and pre-professional stages of life, sometimes a return to the basics is exactly the right remedy.
Your third-grade teacher had a reason for hammering home that five-paragraph essay model. The expositional nature of this essay form can bring clarity and a streamlined current to a piece of writing that often feels torturous to compose. In my writing coaching, I like to remind applicants of the odd, hybrid nature that is the ‘personal statement’ genre—part narrative, part argument. This statement must make an argument exactly while simultaneously telling a story; it must recount exactly the process of how you, the applicant, have arrived at a point of being able to confidently assert that medicine is the most ideal career for you. This bifurcated structure is both crucial and difficult to integrate gracefully. Moreover, summing up all of these reasons in less than 5,300 characters can be quite the daunting task! Through experience, I have seen how leaning into and taking refuge in the seemingly ‘elementary’ five-paragraph model may ultimately liberate your writing.
The most critical framing of your argument-narrative takes place in the introduction paragraph. It is well known that admissions committees read hundreds, if not thousands of statements each cycle. Without a firm idea of why readers should bother to continue, they might not (!) Therefore, I urge applicants to think beyond a clever ‘hook’ statement alone and consider exposing more compelling reasons for sticking around. For this reason, stating your thesis at some point within this first paragraph is paramount. Its placement here will also allow you to color the rest of your statement accordingly. If the reader has the condensed, extra-strength version of your thesis up front, they will infer glimmers of your reasoning throughout the following body paragraphs.
I encourage students to envision the following three body paragraphs as a ‘flashback’ moment. In this narrative core, you may rewind and corroborate your previously-stated thesis. Here is your chance to recount and justify precisely how you arrived at where you stand today, applying for this higher degree, in full conviction of it being the best possible career for you. If at any point in your writing you find yourself straying from a narrative that leads towards that thesis, step back and re-evaluate. Each body paragraph should read like a ‘chapter’ of your story—a story whose ending you and the reader already know (aka your thesis statement!) Each paragraph may highlight meaningful academic, volunteer, professional experiences, or even recount how your journey was roundabout or unexpected. However, all content should fall linearly beneath the umbrella of the thesis statement.
The conclusion paragraph is the obvious moment to remind your readers of why you believe you would make a great physician, since they have graciously prevailed with you thus far! Yet, you should not content yourself to simply reiterating your earlier thesis. Now that your reader has been with you on that prior flashback journey, they better understand your background and can grapple more precisely with your argument for ‘why medicine?’ In other words, you can push readers a little further along your lines of reasoning. Take this chance to zoom out; you can afford some degree of abstraction here because it has been qualified by the story you just told. Likewise, this is an ideal moment to loop in reminders of recently-traversed terrain. (Ex. “Via teaching, volunteering, and shadowing, I learned that…”). Lastly, an effective clincher can do marvels to wrap up your statement smoothly. If possible, link a final uplifting thought towards medicine back to the initial hook. Puns, in this dimension, are fine, but only if they are meaningful and not purely superfluous or goofy.
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