Why Applicants Struggle to Sell Themselves (and How to Fix It)

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I want to share some insights about a very common struggle I’ve noticed with the students I advise, specifically with regard to preparing bland or cliché written materials (e.g., CVs, personal statements).

At some point in the admissions cycle (February or March before medical school applications for premed students, Summer before college applications for high school students), I recommend that my students prepare their CVs for the following two reasons: 1) to send to prospective rec letter writers, and 2) to make writing about extracurricular activities on their applications much easier when the time comes.

So, how do you prepare a great CV?

90% of students create a long list of things they simply DID across various activities. For example, when they describe their hospital volunteering or shadowing experiences, students write things like:

  • "Shadowed an emergency physician during rounds."
  • "Observed neurosurgery consults."

Do you notice anything wrong with these examples?

Neither of them described any VALUE the applicant added or any INSIGHTS gained. As far as admissions committees are concerned, the student quietly followed a doctor around the hospital without contributing anything.

The reason this is a problem is because schools at all levels want to admit LEADERS who will be VALUABLE to their communities.

Even though most of us can see the issue with these examples, we’ve all been guilty of writing essentially what are long lists for our CVs, and even in our personal statements.

So, how can you stand out? How can you demonstrate value in your CV?

By discussing what you ACCOMPLISHED or LEARNED.

Let's see how we can turn the two examples above into value statements:

  • "Supported emergency physicians during rounds by ensuring that patients were comfortable during their stays with regard to adequate snacks, drinks, blankets, etc.
  • "Learned how physicians demonstrate good bedside manner to develop trust with their patients."

How much more powerful are those examples? Admissions committees can see how proactive and observant you are because you SHOWED them rather than simply TOLD them.

The good news is that you've likely gone out of your way to demonstrate some form of leadership in your extracurricular activities.

So, why do we struggle to write about how great we are and how much value we've added in our applications?

Because we don't want to brag or sound "salesy." We want our work to speak for itself. Moreover, selling doesn’t come naturally to most of us. To get around this, students try to go the safe route by only describing what they’ve done.

Unfortunately, as an applicant, you have to sell yourself.

You CAN do this without sounding sleazy.

When you describe what you actually accomplished, you make yourself seem impressive without bragging. After all, you're just stating the facts.

Look back at the example about "support[ing] emergency physicians..." The applicant never writes how "giving" or "compassionate" they are. The facts speak for themselves.

I’m curious whether any of you struggle with this, or whether you’re worried about how you’re going to impress rec letter writers and admissions committees with your CV, personal statement, or extracurricular activities? What exactly are you concerned about? I want to answer all of your questions.

Feel free to provide examples you've already written so others and I can provide feedback. There's a lot of great support available if you simply ask :)