The truth about medical school personal statements: a strategic view

medical school admissions personal statements strategy
By Henry

What should I write about in my medical school personal statement? Well, that’s the wrong question.

Writing a medical school personal statement can be hard. One question seems to be the most common source of anxiety: what should applicants write about? The common wisdom is to explain why the applicant wants to be a physician and what will make them a good doctor. But this advice can be frustrating, and I think it frames the challenge incorrectly.  When admissions committee members read an application, they don’t look at the personal statement in isolation. Committee members analyze applicants in the context of the ensemble of applicant materials that may include CV, activities, grades, test scores, letters of recommendation, the personal statement, and the interview. As such, the real question isn’t: “what should I write about on my personal statement?”, it’s “given the entirety of my application, what should I write about in my personal statement?” But that requires a preliminary analysis…

How should applicants analyze their entire medical school application?

Let’s take the point of view of an admissions committee member. When a member reads an application, they don’t do it aimlessly. Every medical school has a list of criteria through which they examine applications. Naturally, all medical school’s criteria are a closely guarded secret, but the AAMC has done applicants a favor and published guidelines about the types of criteria admissions committee members should use to consider applicants.

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The AAMC has released 15 Core Competencies for Entering Medical Students, which provides a framework to analyze medical school applicants. The link above shows the AAMC’s definitions of each of the terms in the figure above. Applicants can (and should) use this framework to lay out all the components of their application to try to show evidence in favor of every core competency. By doing this, applicants can see the gaps or weak points in their application.

Given the entirety of my application, what should I write about in my personal statement?

After matching each part of the application to the AAMC core competencies, every applicant will have weaker areas: competencies not well addressed by the rest of the application. These are good potential topics for personal statements (and topics for stories during admissions interviews). In fact, the AAMC gives such clear definitions of each core competency that applicants can use as a check list for the statement (at least in the first draft). For example, let’s look at the definition of Social Skills:

“Demonstrates an awareness of others’ needs, goals, feelings, and the ways that social and behavioral cues affect peoples’ interactions and behaviors; adjusts behaviors appropriately in response to these cues; treats others with respect.” (“Core Competencies for Entering Medical Students | AAMC”)

This definition is loaded with meaningful terms that can be used as a check list to guide writing. If for instance, the Core Competency that doesn’t pop out of the rest of your materials is Interpersonal skills then tell a story in your personal statement that illustrates your awareness of others’ needs, goals, and feelings, how you infer these from social and behavioral cues and how you respond appropriately and with respect.

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Struggling with topics for a medical school personal statement? Step back, look at the entire application according to the AAMC core competencies, see the gaps in the rest of the application, and use the gaps as a starting point for your statement. Of course, that’s not the end of the process. The common wisdom isn’t wrong: the personal statement should also show why the applicant wants to be a doctor, and what would make them a great one. Finally, if you have strengths that don’t appear in the AAMC’s core competencies such as a unique background or unusual achievements, don’t forget to highlight those. The best personal statements strike a balance across all these factors.


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