A Step-By-Step Guide to Completing the Most Dreaded Part of Your Medical School Applications
(Note: This article represents a modified version of Lesson 3 of our free comprehensive guide to medical school applications, Get Into Medical School: 6 Practical Lessons to Stand Out and Earn Your White Coat.)
Part 1: Introduction
Who are you? Why medicine?
In other words, if medical school admissions committees could not see your grades, MCAT scores, research and clinical experiences, or recommendation letters, what would you want them to know about you and your desire to pursue medicine, in no more than 5,300 characters?
This is precisely what you will want to convey through your AMCAS personal statement, the prompt for which simply states, “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.”
Super vague, right?
This general prompt can be seen as a blessing (“I can write about anything I want!”) or a curse (“So… what do I write about?”).
I choose to see it as a blessing.
In the previous article of our medical school admissions guide (Where to Apply to Medical School to Maximize Admissions Odds), I wrote that I will focus only on aspects of your application that you can actually affect at this point (e.g., essays), rather than on things students worry about but cannot change (e.g., freshman year grades).
Well, there is nothing you can affect more than what goes into your personal statement (as well as your AMCAS Work and Activities Section and secondary application essays). In other words, what admissions committees learn about you through your personal statement is entirely up to you.
Given that the personal statement deserves such significant attention in your primary application, my article on how to conquer it will be the longest in this series.
Before we jump into writing, let’s consider the goals of the personal statement beyond answering “Who are you?,” “Why you?,” and “Why medicine?” (don’t worry, I cover these in length below):
- To get you an interview and, ultimately, accepted to medical school
- To not get you rejected to medical school (e.g., disclosing weird things about yourself)
- To offer talking points for your admissions interviews
With these goals in mind, it's time to begin the writing process.
Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)
Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:
- Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
- Think of events or situations that highlight these qualities
Then, you should write about one of these events or situations in a way that demonstrates these qualities and captures the reader’s attention.
1. List Your Greatest Qualities
To answer the personal statement prompt more easily, focus again on the question of what you want admissions committees to know about you beyond your numbers and achievements.
I’m not talking about your hobbies (e.g., “I followed Taylor Swift to every concert she performed in the US during this past year”), although you could certainly point to aspects of your lifestyle in your essay to make your point.
Instead, I’m talking about which of your qualities–character, personality traits, attitudes–you want to demonstrate. Examples include:
- Extraordinary compassion
- Willingness to learn
- Great listening skills
- And so on
If you have difficulty thinking of your great qualities (many students do), ask family members or close friends what you’re good at and why they like you; that will take care of things :)
Finally, choose the two or three qualities that you want to focus on in your personal statement. Let’s use compassion and knowledge-seeking as the foundational qualities of an original example for this article.
(Note: I cannot overstate how important it is to think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your personal statement before choosing a situation or event to write about. Students who decide on an event or situation first usually struggle to fit in their qualities within the confines of their story. On the other hand, students who choose the qualities they want to convey first are easily able to demonstrate them because the event or situation they settle on naturally highlights these qualities.)
2. When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?
Now that I’m off my soapbox and you’ve chosen qualities to highlight, it’s time to list any event(s) or setting(s) where you’ve demonstrated them.
I should explicitly mention that this event or setting doesn't need to come from a clinical (e.g., shadowing a physician, interacting with a young adult patient at a cancer center, working with children in an international clinic) or research experience (e.g., making a finding in cancer research), although it’s OK if it involves an extracurricular activity directly related to medicine.
In fact, since most students start their essays by describing clinical or research experiences, starting off with something else–travel (e.g., a camping trip in Yellowstone), volunteering (e.g., building homes in New Orleans), family (e.g., spending time with and learning from your elderly and ill grandmother back home in New Hampshire), work (e.g., helping out at your parents’ donut shop)–will make you immediately stand out.
Let’s start with the example of building homes in New Orleans. Why? Because we could easily demonstrate compassion and knowledge-seeking through this experience. Notice how the qualities we select can choose the story for us?
3. Describe Your Event as a Story
Here’s where the art of writing a great personal statement really comes in.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays, most of which are very cliché or dry. Therefore, it’s critical that you stand out by engaging the reader from the very beginning.
By far the best way to capture admissions officers early is by developing a story at the start of your essay about the event or situation you chose in Step 2.
In a previous article, I wrote about the three critical elements for writing a great admissions essay story: 1) a compelling character, 2) a relatable plot, and 3) authenticity)
However, I want to go one step beyond that article and provide an actual example of how the same event can be written in a routine vs. compelling way. That way, you can avoid the common pitfalls of typical personal statements and write a standout one.
One of my most eye-opening experiences came when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans during the summer months of 2014. Up to that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.
New Orleans was hot and humid during the summer months of 2014–no surprise there. However, for a native Oregonian like me, waking up to 90-degree and 85% humidity days initially seemed like too much to bear. That was until I reflected on the fact that my temporary discomfort was minute in contrast to the destruction of communities and emotional pounding experienced by the people of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people was as much about lifting spirits as making physical improvements.
Many people may feel the Routine example is pretty good. Upon closer look, however, it seems that:
- The focus is as much on New Orleanians as the applicant
- The story is not particularly relatable (unless the reader had also volunteered there)
- There isn’t much support for the writer actually being touched by the people there
On the other hand, the Compelling example:
- Keeps the spotlight on the applicant throughout (e.g., references being from Oregon, discusses her reflections, interacting with Jermaine)
- Has a relatable plot (e.g., temporary discomfort, changing perspectives)
- Is authentic (e.g., provides an example of how she lifted spirits)
4. Demonstrate Your Qualities
(Note: This section applies to all aspects of your essay.)
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given for writing personal statements, but further guidance or examples are rarely provided to demonstrate what it looks like when done well.
This is unfortunate because the best way to understand how standout personal statements demonstrate qualities through an engaging story is by reading two examples of the same situation: one that “tells” about a quality, and another that “shows” a quality.
Let’s take a look at the last sentence of each story example I provided in the previous section to better understand this distinction.
Telling (from Routine story)
“…it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.”
Showing (from Compelling story)
“…actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people…”
Notice how the second example demonstrates compassion without ever mentioning the word "compassion" (hence no bolded words)?
Moreover, the same sentence demonstrates knowledge-seeking: “Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals...”)
That’s what you’re going for.
Think about it. Who do you consider to be more kind:
- A person who says, “I’m really nice!”; or
- A person who you've seen do nice things for others?
Clearly, the second person will be seen as more kind, even if there's no difference between their levels of kindness.
Therefore, by demonstrating your qualities, you will look better to admissions committees, and also seem more authentic.
Part 3: How to Continue (Goal: Describe Your Path to Medicine)
After writing your opening paragraph to engage the reader, it’s time to write the meat and potatoes of your personal statement. Specifically, it’s time to discuss experiences that helped you grow and led to you to pursue medicine.
5. Discuss Your Most Formative Experiences That Led You Medicine
Return to your list from Step 2 (When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?) and choose one or two more experiences/areas (e.g., research, clinical work) that led you to medicine.
Why choose no more than three experiences total?
Because you should be aiming for depth over breadth (remember, you’re working with a 5,300-character limit; 4,500 characters for D.O. applications). Rather than discuss everything you’ve done, focus on:
- Why you pursued certain experiences
- How you felt during them
- What you accomplished and learned
- How your experiences affected you, and how they influenced your decision to pursue medicine
Below are two examples–one routine and one compelling–to demonstrate how to achieve this.
Shadowing the neurosurgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital and witnessing their unwavering dedication to their patients and patients’ families helped me realize that I wanted to make a similar impact on people's lives.
This sentence doesn't answer "Why medicine?" (for example, you could greatly impact people's lives through law or teaching), nor does it demonstrate your qualities (although it makes the neurosurgeons look really good).
I was initially frustrated while shadowing neurosurgeons and caring for patients (e.g., conversing with them during downtime and providing anything in my power to make them comfortable, such as extra pillows, water, or snacks) at Massachusetts General Hospital because many patients recovered very slowly–and sometimes not at all. I wondered whether these experiences would deter me from pursuing medicine. Therefore, I was surprised when the opposite occurred. The physicians’ unwavering dedication to their patients and families' expressed gratitude–even in their saddest days–provided more than enough confirmation that medicine was the path I should pursue to make a similar physical and emotional impact on people's lives.
By going deeper about an experience, this example allowed the student to convey:
- How they felt (“I was initially frustrated while shadowing…”)
- How they were affected (“…the opposite [of determent] occurred”)
- How they were influenced to pursue medicine specifically
Collectively, the student demonstrated their compassion, personal growth, and desire to pursue medicine.
(Note: Discuss your formative experiences in the body paragraphs in chronological order. For example, if you choose to write about one experience in 2014 and another in 2013, write about your 2013 experience first, even if you wrote about the 2014 experience in your introductory paragraph. Having a clear timeline makes it easier for the reader to follow along.)
Part 4: How to End (Goal: Tie It All Together)
It’s (almost) time to wrap up your personal statement and move on with your life!
The concluding paragraph should highlight three things:
- Your positive qualities (you can mention them explicitly here rather than "show" them)
- Perspectives gained from your formative experiences
- Your passion for medicine
Additionally, the best essays somehow refer back to their introductory paragraph’s story to "close the loop."
6. Reemphasize Your Qualities, Perspectives, and Passions
Focusing on certain experiences in your introduction and body paragraphs that convey your greatest qualities helps you develop a consistent theme throughout your essay. It also makes closing your essay much easier.
To demonstrate this, I’ll show you how New Orleans volunteering and neurosurgery shadowing can be tied together to reemphasize compassion and knowledge-seeking, highlight perspectives gained, and communicate a strong desire to pursue medicine.
The consistent theme throughout my extracurricular work is that, whereas I initially pursue experiences–clinical, volunteer, or otherwise–to learn, what sticks with me even more than newfound knowledge is the compassion I develop for the people I serve. Furthermore, I have realized that there is a multitude of ways to serve, such as treating people’s physical ailments, offering empathy for anxious family members, or leaving my comfort zone to help a struggling community. These perspectives, coupled with my lifelong fascination with the human body’s complexities, leave no doubt that medicine is the path through which I want to use my abilities to make a positive holistic impact on people’s lives. I hope 9-year-old Jermaine knows that I was equally touched by his gratitude for a rebuilt home, and how his reaction was partly responsible for me devoting my career to help others feel the way he did on that hot and muggy summer day.
Let’s see whether this concluding paragraph checks all three boxes:
- Positive qualities (“knowledge-seeking” and “compassion,”); check
- Perspectives gained from formative experiences (“…realized that there is a multitude of ways to serve”); check
- Passion for medicine (“medicine is the path through which I want to use my abilities to make a positive holistic impact on people’s lives”); check
This paragraph also gets bonus points for looping Jermaine in one final time.
The AMCAS personal statement offers a unique opportunity to share your story and describe your path to medicine–however you want to.
Rather than dive right in and list the extracurricular experiences that you think will most impress admissions committees, consider what impression you want to leave them with. In other words, which of your qualities do you want to be remembered for?
Once you've identified your defining qualities, the task of communicating why you are specifically fit for medicine becomes much easier.
Through engaging stories, you can leave no doubt in readers' minds that you're not only qualified for this field, but also the right person for the job.
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Part 5: Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a list of the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) I receive about the AMCAS personal statement that are not answered in this article.
I encourage you to ask any other questions you have about the personal statement in the Comments section below. I'll make sure to answer your questions within 24 hours and add some of them to this FAQ section to make it easier for other students to find this information.
Question: Would it be a good idea to write about [essay topic]?
Answer: Every topic can lead to a standout or average personal statement depending on how compellingly you write it. In other words, there's no such thing as a "good" or "bad" essay topic, only strong or weak execution.
Also, pretty much every topic has been covered at this point. You can stand out by sharing your personal stories, unique insights, and eye-opening experiences, not by writing about a brand new topic, as so few exist.
Question: I listed a number of qualities I can demonstrate, but I'm not sure which to choose. Can you say more?
Answer: Your personal statement represents just one part of your much larger application. You'll have opportunities to demonstrate a number of your great qualities through your AMCAS Work and Activities section, your secondary essays, and even your interviews. Therefore, any two or three qualities you want to convey through your personal statement will work; don't stress about figuring out the "perfect" ones, as no such thing exists. And when in doubt, ask family members and friends.
Question: What if some of the experiences I choose to write about in my personal statement aren't directly related to medicine?
Answer: No worries. Medical school admissions committees look to admit individuals with qualities befitting good doctors. These qualities can be demonstrated through experiences directly related to medicine, as well as through experiences that seemingly have little to do with medicine, but cast a very positive light on you.
That said, your personal statement should include at least one experience directly related to medicine. In your essay, you'll want to briefly describe how your interest in medicine developed, followed by how you consistently pursued that interest.
Question: Does my personal statement's introduction paragraph story have to be about an experience during college?
Answer: Not necessarily. That said, if you write your introduction about an earlier-than-college experience, you'll want to quickly transition to your college and post-college years. While medical schools want to learn about your most formative experiences, they really want to know about who you are today.
Question: Can you say a little more about how I can write my essay so that it's clear I want to go into medicine and not another health care field?
Answer: There are two critical elements for convincing admissions committees that you want to pursue medicine specifically:
- A long-term commitment to medically-relevant experiences
- A clear understanding of what medicine entails that other fields don't
Without the first element, your application likely won't be very strong because you won't meet schools' expectations for extracurricular activities.
Assuming you will meet school's extracurricular expectations, the second element comes down to your ability to describe what physicians can and do accomplish in the medical setting that other professionals can't. As long as you "show" an understanding of some of physicians' unique responsibilities, abilities, and impacts, you don't have to mention other professionals.
Question: I feel like I don't have enough space to write everything I want. What should I do?
Answer: You shouldn't try to fit everything into your personal statement. In fact, if you try to cover everything within the 5,300-character limit, you'll end up covering nothing well.
Remember that your complete application includes multiple written sections: your personal statement, Work and Activities section, and secondary application essays. You should aim to provide admissions committees with a holistic view of who you are across your entire application, not solely through your personal statement. Your personal statement should be used to offer a bird's eye view of who you are and your path to medicine, whereas your AMCAS Work and Activities section and secondary essays should cover the finer details.
Question: Should I mention bad grades in my personal statement?
Answer: In most cases, no. With limited characters, your primary goal for your personal statement should be to tell medical school admissions committees why you will be an excellent doctor.
Admissions committees will already see your grades. If you use too much space discussing your poor grades during freshman year or some other time, you'll draw even more attention to the red flags on your application and lose a golden opportunity to demonstrate your impressive qualities.
One exception is if you received poor grades due to some extraordinary circumstance, such as recovering from a significant accident or illness. Even then, you should discuss your poor grades in the "Additional Information" section of your application.
Question: Can you send me personal statement examples from students who got into medical school?
Answer: Yes. Once you receive our free comprehensive guide on the medical school application process, please email me for personal statement samples.