When I worked on my own personal statement, I took care to select experiences and to phrase things in a way that would highlight maturity, steering away from anything that might cause an admissions committee to apply those words to me. In some ways, this is an unreasonable task: most medical school applicants are young, still acquiring the life experience that they are supposed to be writing about. Still, there are ways to write a persuasive personal statement that highlights a mature and thoughtful adult ready to take on medical school.
Who am I to say that a given personal statement is reading as immature? Unlike the applicants who figured things out early, I took my time finding my way to a career in medicine. I spent 6 years serving in the U.S. Air Force and was in my thirties by the time I applied to medical school. As such, I’ve developed a sharp awareness for writing that lands as immature. I’ve used my unique perspective to help applicants emphasize their strengths and avoid common missteps. Based on my experience, here are nine things you should NOT do in your personal statement:
1. “I always wanted to be a doctor.”
My trusted mentor (who used to serve on an admissions committee herself) said that this statement is a red flag. A young child barely knows what a doctor is - how did they decide to be one? They didn’t; their parents decided. This is concerning to anyone evaluating applications - a student who was pushed into medicine is a less compelling candidate than a student who freely chose medicine.
But having pushy parents is not a disqualification! I advise applicants in this position to think about moments they had as a young adult that solidified their pursuit of medicine. When did the journey become your journey? This focuses your response on your growth and maturity, as answering this question makes you reflect on your experiences as a young adult.
2. The hook highlights an early childhood incident.
While this hook can be done well, it frequently can backfire. First, it focuses on the applicant as a child, rather than on the young adult who is going to attend medical school. Secondly, it can raise concerns about the applicant’s life experience: were there no other substantial experiences that happened to the applicant since childhood? For a life or death incident, this can make sense. For anything else, it can look like the applicant is very sheltered.
The fix: talk about a more recent story! And if the childhood event truly played a pivotal role, go ahead and mention it, but make sure to connect it to more recent reflections and experiences as you progress through your statement.
3. The parents get too much attention.
Parents are a huge part of our lives. But part of growing up is branching out and forming an adult identity that is separate from them. A number of personal statements I have read focus on the parents so much that it left me questioning whether that process of growing and differentiating occurred for the applicant. An excessive presence of parents in a story can make the applicant read as immature and dependent.
It’s okay to mention parents (since they are the starting point of your journey), but make sure they don’t take center stage. Are you the focus in key locations in your statement? The hook and the conclusion, in particular, should be about you. And the bulk of the story should focus on your experiences and actions.
An editing trick to check for this issue is to highlight the text of your personal statement - how much is your parent’s story and how much is your story? You’ll quickly see if the ratio is off.
4. The hook is about a quirk.
This strategy may seem like a fun way to start off, but it can hurt applicants in several ways. First, readers only have so much attention to give, and the hook is their first impression - so don’t waste the hook on an icebreaker fact! Use this key part of the essay to talk about something more meaningful, like your years of preparation or a moment of personal growth.
If I gave you ten seconds to blurt out one thing that makes you stand out from other applicants and shows you are ready for medical school, what is it? If your hook doesn’t include this information, it isn’t serving you as well as it could be.
5. Using long words.
I have yet to edit a personal statement and not encourage the applicant to use simple, clear language. First, many applicants don’t use more complicated words correctly - don’t be that person. Second, long words make an applicant seem like they’re only invested in sounding smart. This can read as insecure or insincere, which paints a less than flattering portrait. Third, longer words quickly eat into the precious character count. And for what? Your grades and your MCAT score already highlight your mind and your aptitude - don’t waste the character count on sounding smart when that information is present elsewhere.
The fix: short words are better words! One technique I employed for my personal statement was to write my statement in my second language. I don’t have the vocabulary to dance around the things I’m trying to say when writing in my second language. For anyone who speaks another language, this can be a tool to help you get to the point.
6. Using quotes from big thinkers.
Including lofty quotes is a strategy that can work well for college essays (nothing like a little Marcus Aurelius to add some polish). But I have yet to see this done well for a med school application. Bringing in sophisticated thinkers can make it seem like the applicant lacks confidence in their own ideas. Keep your statement focused on your own ideas and beliefs!
7. Overblowing a small event.
Lavishing description for a small or routine event can raise questions about the quality of an applicant’s perspective. Additionally, dramatizing events can detract from the heart of the story being told. Make sure you’re telling your stories and sharing your experiences as truthfully as possible - added drama will only get in the way of what you’re saying.
8. Neglecting to show results (of the small event).
Still, if a small event truly was important to your growth, make sure you fully explain the results and impact of that event! I see applicants miss this particular opportunity to show maturity and growth over and over again. The key is to always show the results of every experience you write about. What did you make of it? How did this event change you or change your assessment of the world? No matter how small or average the incident, showing exactly how an event was a catalyst for reflection and growth is a powerful narrative. Furthermore, it is a narrative that shows you will make the most of every opportunity in medical school. You don’t deserve an interview or acceptance because of who you are now, but because of who you have the capacity to become.
Consider a scenario where a butterfly flaps its wings and causes a storm - the flapping is small and routine; the storm it creates is anything but. If I want to convince you of the importance of this event, should I spend my time describing the up/down motion of the butterfly’s wings in excruciating detail? Or, should I just say it flapped and spend most of my time describing the storm? The latter option will be a more compelling, persuasive, and rewarding essay.
An example from my own application is the shadowing I did in an HIV clinic. I did not shadow for a remarkable length of time, and nothing inherently dramatic occurred while I was there. Nonetheless, I was deeply impressed by the care shown to the patients there. Now, it’s easy for an admissions committee to toss off a statement like “I was deeply impressed,” so I made sure my essay focused on what I did after the clinic. I spent most of my essay describing how I went on to do more shadowing related to infectious diseases and how I spent my gap year doing HIV research. I didn’t make the case that the initial HIV clinic was an important experience for me by waxing poetic on one patient’s problems, but rather I offered evidence regarding how I changed based on this experience. An event does not need to be huge and dramatic in itself to be deeply important to you.
9. Only friends and family read the statement before submitting.
Many applicants have only their family, close friends, or trusted mentors read their personal statement. These are people who already know and love the applicant, and this personal bias can allow these people to subconsciously give the applicant the benefit of the doubt if a story doesn’t land quite right. It’s important to test your statement against a slightly less sympathetic audience (like a tutor!) to make sure that you are submitting the strongest pieces with the clearest messages.
If you can avoid the nine common mistakes I’ve described here, you will be well on your way to crafting a mature and authentic personal statement for medical schools. I wish you all the best as you work on your applications!