It is a rare applicant who does not feel anxiety about writing the essay that occupy the "Personal Comments" section of the medical school primary application. In 5300 characters, you are expected to craft a composition that will impress admissions committees and intrigue them enough to offer you an interview. Nearly every applicant tells us they wish there were a pat formula they could use to produce the "perfect" primary essay. Alas, we all know there's no such thing.
"Some approaches to the personal statement are so inherently flawed that it would not be advisable to use them," states Don Osborne, president of PreMed Success. "Oddly enough, though, these problematic strategies have traditionally been some of the most popular among applicants!" A description of the worst offenders follows, along with some useful techniques for turning them around.
The "Annotated Resume" Essay. In this kind of essay, applicants essentially rewrite their resumes, beginning with birth or some other early stage of life, and proceeding to high school and finally college accomplishments. It resembles a chronological list of events more than an essay. However, the purpose of a personal statement is to have applicants articulate as clearly as possible their most compelling reasons for applying to medical school-and highlight relevant facts of their lives to support this motivation. Resume items are certainly not irrelevant, but it is up to you to bring it to life with details explaining how your past experience illustrates your values and reasons for wanting to practice medicine.
The "High School Hero" Essay. This kind of writing focuses primarily on one particular point in the past at which applicants feel they were at their best. Though this experience may seem to applicants to reveal their great potential, focusing on it in your AMCAS application might prompt your reader to wonder whether the great accomplishment described in the essay represents your only such success (i.e. a fluke). Though there is certainly nothing wrong with relating the most shining examples of success in your personal history, it is up to you to prove that these represent mere glimpses of your innate potential.
Furthermore, by focusing on only one event, the "high school hero" essay potentially ignores other important factors that need to be addressed in the application. For example, if your GPA is below average for admissions to most medical schools, a glowing story about a shining moment in your life does little to mitigate the grave concerns that med school admissions committees may have about your ability to handle the academic rigor of med school.
The "Sick Relative" Essay. Almost everyone has had at least one relative who has endured some sort of serious illness. Therefore, this experience is not unique. Applicants who feature a description of such an experience as the focal point of their primary essays miss an important opportunity to distinguish themselves from their fellow applicants. For many, however, the experience of wishing they had the power to help a loved one suffering from illness honestly sparked their interest in medicine as a career. For applicants like these, since intention counts less than action, tell what actions you took in response to a family member's illness that might demonstrate an interest in medicine, such as researching the illness or possible treatments on the Internet or at the library, or going on to study the workings of this same illness in the laboratory as a student later on. Remember that the purpose of your personal statement is to present evidence that you possess the skills, qualities, and interests relevant to a career in medicine.
The "I Want to Be A Doctor Because I Want to Help People" Essay. Some applicants to medical school make their desire to help others the thesis of their primary essay. Unfortunately, however, while it may seem a good enough reason to the applicant, this statement will not seem as compelling to the admissions officer, who has read thousands of essays expressing similarly altruistic sentiments. Again, taking this approach robs applicants of an important chance to stand out from the crowd. Everyone who wants to be a doctor wants to help people; helping people is what being a doctor is all about.
"The key is to remember that stating the desire to help others doesn't necessarily mean a person has what it takes to do so," explains Monica Osborne, INQUARTA editor. "The challenge for every applicant is to find a way to show how this desire to help others has motivated action in the past and will continue to do so in the future." Osborne offered the following questions as a template for building a different essay:
- How do my science background, my research background, my academic work, my community involvement, my clinical experiences, and my ambitions for the future all relate to medicine?
- What stories can I tell to persuade readers that I already have a head start on developing the skills of a competent and caring physician?