In-Depth Analysis of a Top-5 Medical School Personal Statement

Apply the same framework that landed our student at one of the best US med schools

Medical School Personal Statement Analysis Shemmassian Academic Consulting.jpg

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Part 1: Introduction

If you've ever read an article or forum post offering “tips” on how to write a great medical school personal statement, you've probably been given cliché advice with very little supporting information, like:

  • “Be yourself”

  • “Offer a unique angle”

  • “Show, don’t tell”

  • “Get personal”

  • “Don’t use clichés”

  • “Be interesting”

  • “Check for grammar and spelling errors”

  • And so on

Here’s what usually happens when you read tips like these: You understand all of the information, but you’re still stuck in the same place you were before reading the article. You continue to stare at the blank document on your computer, hoping you’ll have an “aha moment.”

Unfortunately, “aha moments” rarely, if ever, come. Much more typically, students procrastinate and/or end up writing about extracurricular and personal experiences that they think admissions committees (adcoms) will be impressed by.

The problem is that if you don’t get your personal statement right, you can compromise your entire application. If you’re a high-achieving applicant with a strong GPA, MCAT score, and rich extracurricular activities, you may get into less-desirable schools than you’d hoped. If you’re an applicant on the borderline, you may not get in at all.

On the other hand, writing a powerful med school personal statement provides adcoms insights into who you are as a person and as a budding physician. More importantly, it helps maximize your odds of admission in an increasingly competitive process.

We want you to be part of this latter group so that you can get into the best schools possible. Therefore, we figured it would be valuable to share a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of a med school personal statement that helped one of our students get into their dream school, which also happens to be ranked in the top 5 of the U.S. News & World Report Best Medical Schools rankings.

You can apply the framework we use in our analysis to evaluate each draft of your personal statement. The best personal statements aren’t produced by accident, but rather through multiple thoughtful iterations.

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Part 2: The Full-Length Personal Statement

Before we get into the weeds with our analysis, we encourage you to read the personal statement example in its entirety. As you go through it, you should keep the following questions in mind:

  • Does the applicant demonstrate qualities that are desirable in a physician? If so, which ones?

  • Is the personal statement mostly about the applicant, or other people?

  • Could anyone else have written this personal statement, or is it unique to the applicant?

  • Does the personal statement cover too much, or is there real depth?

(Note: The medical school personal statement prompt on AMCAS states, “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.” and offers a 5,300-character limit.)

Here’s the personal statement sample:

Sure, it was a little more crowded, cluttered, and low-tech, but Mr. Jackson’s biology classroom at David Starr Jordan High School in South Los Angeles seemed a lot like the one in which I first learned about intermolecular forces and equilibrium constants. Subconsciously, I just assumed teaching the 11th graders about the workings of the cardiovascular system would go smoothly. Therefore, I was shocked when in my four-student group, I could only get Nate’s attention; Cameron kept texting, Mercedes wouldn’t end her Facetime call, and Juanita was repeatedly distracted by her friends. After unsuccessfully pleading for the group’s attention a few times, I realized the students weren’t wholly responsible for the disconnect. Perhaps the problem was one of engagement rather than a lack of interest since their focus waned when I started using terminology—like vena cava—that was probably gibberish to them. So, I drew a basic square diagram broken into quarters for the heart and a smiley face for the body’s cells that needed oxygen and nutrients. I left out structure names to focus on how four distinct chambers kept the oxygenated and deoxygenated blood separate, prompting my students with questions like, “What happens after the smiley face takes the oxygen?” This approach enabled my students to draw conclusions themselves. We spent much of class time going through the figure-8 loop, but their leaning over the table to see the diagram more clearly and blurting out answers demonstrated their engagement and fundamental understanding of the heart as a machine. My elation was obvious when they remembered it the following week.

Ever since my middle school robotics days when a surgeon invited us to LAC+USC Medical Center to unwrap Tootsie rolls with the da Vinci surgical system, I’ve felt that a physician’s role goes beyond serving patients and families. I feel an additional responsibility to serve as a role model to younger students—especially teenagers—who may be intrigued by STEM fields and medicine. Furthermore, my experience in Mr. Jackson’s classroom demonstrated the substantial benefits of assessing specific individuals’ needs even when it requires diverging slightly from the structured plan. Being flexible to discover how to best engage my students, in some ways, parallels the problem-solving aspect I love about medicine.

Clinical experiences go even further by beautifully merging this curiosity-satisfying side of medicine with what I feel is most fulfilling: the human side of care provision. My experience with a tiny three- year-old boy and his mother in genetics clinic confirmed the importance of the latter. Not only was I excited to meet him because he presented with a rare condition, but also because he and his chromosomal deletion had been the focus of my recent clinical case report, published in Genetics in Medicine. While researching his dysmorphic features and disabilities, other patients with similar deletions, and the possible genes contributing to his symptoms, I stayed up until 4 AM for several weeks, too engrossed to sleep. What was more exciting than learning about the underlying science, however, was learning about the opportunity to meet the boy and his mother in person and share my findings with them.

As soon as I walked into the examination room, I noticed the mother avoiding eye contact with the genetic counselor while clutching her son to her chest. I sensed her anxiety and disinterest in hearing about my research conclusions. The impact of her son’s condition on their daily lives probably transcended the scientific details in my report. So despite my desire to get into the science, I restrained myself from overwhelming her. Instead, I asked her to share details about the wonderful interventions she had procured for her son—speech and physical therapy, sign language lessons, special feeds, etc. Through our conversations, I realized that she was really looking for reassurance—for doing a great job caring for her son. I validated her efforts and offered relief that there were other families navigating similar difficulties. As the appointment progressed, I observed her gradually relaxing. Rather than feel weighed down by the research findings I was eager to get off my chest, I felt light as well.

At the end of the appointment, the mom offered to let me hold her son, who gazed back at me with his bright blue eyes. While cradling the little boy humanized the medical details, the mother’s gesture displayed profound trust. Above all, this experience allowed me to recognize that interactions between a patient plus family and their doctor are more than intermediary vehicles to treatment; they are critical and beneficial in their own right. Learning this affirmed my longstanding desire and eagerness to become a physician. While research is essential and will surely always trigger my curiosity, I want my work to transcend the lab bench. Specifically, I want to continue engaging with patients and helping them through life’s difficult moments—with physical treatment and genuine support. And since working with each patient constitutes an entirely different experience, I know my medical career will never cease to be fulfilling.

(Word count:  835; Character count: 5,223)

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Part 3: Personal Statement Analysis

Now, let’s analyze the entire personal statement paragraph by paragraph and answer the questions posed above:

Paragraph 1

Sure, it was a little more crowded, cluttered, and low-tech, but Mr. Jackson’s biology classroom at David Starr Jordan High School in South Los Angeles seemed a lot like the one in which I first learned about intermolecular forces and equilibrium constants. Subconsciously, I just assumed teaching the 11th graders about the workings of the cardiovascular system would go smoothly. Therefore, I was shocked when in my four-student group, I could only get Nate’s attention; Cameron kept texting, Mercedes wouldn’t end her Facetime call, and Juanita was repeatedly distracted by her friends. After unsuccessfully pleading for the group’s attention a few times, I realized the students weren’t wholly responsible for the disconnect. Perhaps the problem was one of engagement rather than a lack of interest since their focus waned when I started using terminology—like vena cava—that was probably gibberish to them. So, I drew a basic square diagram broken into quarters for the heart and a smiley face for the body’s cells that needed oxygen and nutrients. I left out structure names to focus on how four distinct chambers kept the oxygenated and deoxygenated blood separate, prompting my students with questions like, “What happens after the smiley face takes the oxygen?” This approach enabled my students to draw conclusions themselves. We spent much of class time going through the figure-8 loop, but their leaning over the table to see the diagram more clearly and blurting out answers demonstrated their engagement and fundamental understanding of the heart as a machine. My elation was obvious when they remembered it the following week.

Analysis

The applicant does a great job of engaging the reader. While reading the paragraph, it’s easy to get transported to the classroom setting they describe due to the level of detail provided. (e.g., “crowded, cluttered, and low-tech,” “Cameron kept texting, Mercedes wouldn’t end her Facetime call…,” “leaning over the table”) The applicant also highlights their service work in the community, and hints that the school may be located in an underserved part of town.

The applicant contrasts the chaotic, distracted classroom with the attention and enthusiasm students exhibit after their educational intervention. This “transformation” reflects positively on the applicant because it demonstrates that they can get creative in addressing a difficult situation.

At this point, we don’t yet know about the applicant’s passion for medicine, but we learn about their interest in biology, teaching, serving, and working directly with people. All of these activities can be pursued through medicine, so the transition to medicine later in their personal statement can be seamless.

Does the applicant demonstrate qualities that are desirable in a physician? If so, which ones?

  • Patient, assumes responsibility, flexible (e.g., “I realized the students weren’t wholly responsible for the disconnect. Perhaps the problem was one of engagement rather than a lack of interest since their focus waned when I started using terminology—like vena cava—that was probably gibberish to them. So, I drew a basic square diagram…”)

  • Commitment to helping students/people learn and understand (e.g., “prompting my students with questions…,” “My elation was obvious when they remembered it the following week.”)

Is the paragraph mostly about the applicant, or other people?

While the applicant discusses others in the introduction (e.g., the 11th graders, Nate, Juanita), there’s no question that they are the primary and most interesting character in the paragraph.

Could anyone else have written this paragraph, or is it unique to the applicant?

Although all competitive applicants participate in service work—many within schools—the writer makes this paragraph their own by doing the following:

  • Including highly specific details about the setting, environment, and students

  • Describing their thoughts, insights, and emotions whenever possible

Does the paragraph cover too much, or is there real depth?

This paragraph is a model of depth. The applicant describes how they taught a single biology lesson during a single class period at a single school. It doesn’t get much more focused than that.

Paragraph 2

Ever since my middle school robotics days when a surgeon invited us to LAC+USC Medical Center to unwrap Tootsie rolls with the da Vinci surgical system, I’ve felt that a physician’s role goes beyond serving patients and families. I feel an additional responsibility to serve as a role model to younger students—especially teenagers—who may be intrigued by STEM fields and medicine. Furthermore, my experience in Mr. Jackson’s classroom demonstrated the substantial benefits of assessing specific individuals’ needs even when it requires diverging slightly from the structured plan. Being flexible to discover how to best engage my students, in some ways, parallels the problem-solving aspect I love about medicine.

Analysis

The applicant effectively uses the second paragraph to provide context, about their early interest in medicine and in mentoring youth. It becomes clear, therefore, why the applicant started off their essay writing about a teaching experience in an 11th-grade classroom.

In addition, the applicant quickly transitions from a non-medical service experience to introduce reasons behind their interest in medicine. For example, the applicant describes how they intend to serve patients and families through the field, as well as scratch their own problem-solving itch to help people.

Another important piece to highlight is how the applicant uses showing vs. telling differently across the first two paragraphs. Whereas the introductory paragraph primarily shows qualities (e.g., “So, I drew a basic square diagram…”), the second paragraph primarily tells (e.g., “Being flexible to discover how to best engage my students…”). Because the applicant proved their flexibility in the introduction (i.e., by showing it), they can claim to be flexible here (i.e., by telling it). On the other hand, if the applicant called themselves flexible from the outset without providing evidence, they may have come across as arrogant or uninsightful.

Does the applicant demonstrate qualities that are desirable in a physician? If so, which ones?

Beyond describing their early interest in medicine (i.e., “Ever since my middle school robotics days when a surgeon invited us to LAC+USC Medical Center…” there is little demonstration of qualities here. Nevertheless, the goals for this paragraph—transition to medicine, describe at a high level what draws them to medicine, set up later stories about problem solving—are clearly achieved.

Is the paragraph mostly about the applicant, or other people?

The second paragraph highlights hypothetical individuals (e.g., patients and families, specific individuals) to describe the applicant’s medical interests.

Could anyone else have written this paragraph, or is it unique to the applicant?

Between the early experience observing the da Vinci surgical system and continuing the discussion of Mr. Jackson’s classroom, it would be very difficult for another applicant to convincingly replicate this paragraph.

Does the paragraph cover too much, or is there real depth?

The applicant certainly covers more experiences here than in the intro, but they do so to bridge the service discussion with the upcoming discussion of medical experiences. Notice also how this paragraph is intentionally kept short. The goal isn’t to get too deep into their middle school experiences, or to do more telling than necessary. Make the transition, and move on so you can achieve more depth later.

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Paragraph 3

Clinical experiences go even further by beautifully merging this curiosity-satisfying side of medicine with what I feel is most fulfilling: the human side of care provision. My experience with a tiny three- year-old boy and his mother in genetics clinic confirmed the importance of the latter. Not only was I excited to meet him because he presented with a rare condition, but also because he and his chromosomal deletion had been the focus of my recent clinical case report, published in Genetics in Medicine. While researching his dysmorphic features and disabilities, other patients with similar deletions, and the possible genes contributing to his symptoms, I stayed up until 4 AM for several weeks, too engrossed to sleep. What was more exciting than learning about the underlying science, however, was learning about the opportunity to meet the boy and his mother in person and share my findings with them.

Analysis

The third paragraph immediately builds off of the preceding one by letting the reader know that even more fulfilling than satisfying their own curiosity (and problem solving) is providing care to real people. This is a very important disclosure because the reader may be wondering what the applicant’s primary motivation is. As a medical school applicant, you have to convey a “people first” attitude.

The applicant then dives right into what sounds like a fascinating research experience that not only results in a publication (to be discussed further in their Work and Activities section), but also leads to actually meeting the patient with the rare genetic condition. The applicant’s approach clearly integrates their passion for research and clinical work.

The paragraph also ends with a strong “hook.” The admissions reader is left wondering how the meeting with the boy and his mother went, so they will continue to read attentively.

Does the applicant demonstrate qualities that are desirable in a physician? If so, which ones?

  • Curious and hard-working (e.g., “While researching his dysmorphic features and disabilities, other patients with similar deletions, and the possible genes contributing to his symptoms, I stayed up until 4 AM for several weeks, too engrossed to sleep”)

  • Accomplished (e.g., “my recent clinical case report, published in Genetics in Medicine.”)

Is the paragraph mostly about the applicant, or other people?

Once again, the applicant does a masterful job of incorporating storytelling and other characters (i.e., the boy and his mother) to convey the qualities that will make them a great doctor. In other words, this paragraph isn’t really about the boy and his mother, but rather how the applicant prepped for their meeting with them.

Could anyone else have written this paragraph, or is it unique to the applicant?

Between the upcoming meeting with the three-year-old boy and his mother, researching the boy’s genetic condition, and getting published in a specific journal, it’s basically impossible to replicate this paragraph.

Does the paragraph cover too much, or is there real depth?

The applicant maintains focus on how their interest in service and research can be applied to help real people. They take it one step further by highlighting a specific time when they did just that. There is no additional fluff, tangential information, or competing storylines.

Paragraph 4

As soon as I walked into the examination room, I noticed the mother avoiding eye contact with the genetic counselor while clutching her son to her chest. I sensed her anxiety and disinterest in hearing about my research conclusions. The impact of her son’s condition on their daily lives probably transcended the scientific details in my report. So despite my desire to get into the science, I restrained myself from overwhelming her. Instead, I asked her to share details about the wonderful interventions she had procured for her son—speech and physical therapy, sign language lessons, special feeds, etc. Through our conversations, I realized that she was really looking for reassurance—for doing a great job caring for her son. I validated her efforts and offered relief that there were other families navigating similar difficulties. As the appointment progressed, I observed her gradually relaxing. Rather than feel weighed down by the research findings I was eager to get off my chest, I felt light as well.

Analysis

The applicant right away begins to describe their meeting with the boy and his mother. We understand that while the applicant was ready to share their research with the family, the mother appears anxious and is more interested in understanding how she can help her son.

It should also be noted that the applicant does not judge the mother in any way and offers supporting evidence for their conclusions about what the mother must’ve been thinking and feeling. For example, rather than just call the mother “anxious,” the applicant first describes how she avoided eye contact and clutched her son tightly.

The applicant once again demonstrates their flexibility by showing how they modified their talking points to fit the family’s needs rather than satisfy their own curiosity and self-interest. Moreover, they highlight not only the approach they took with this family, but also the impact on their care. For example, after discussing how they validated the mother’s care efforts, the applicant mentions how the mother relaxed.

Does the applicant demonstrate qualities that are desirable in a physician? If so, which ones?

  • Socially aware (e.g., “I noticed the mother avoiding eye contact with the genetic counselor while clutching her son to her chest. I sensed her anxiety and disinterest in hearing about my research conclusions. The impact of her son’s condition on their daily lives probably transcended the scientific details in my report.”)

  • Flexible (e.g., “So despite my desire to get into the science, I restrained myself from overwhelming her. Instead, I asked her to share details about the wonderful interventions she had procured for her son—speech and physical therapy, sign language lessons, special feeds, etc.”)

  • Socially skilled and validating (e.g., “Through our conversations, I realized that she was really looking for reassurance—for doing a great job caring for her son. I validated her efforts and offered relief that there were other families navigating similar difficulties.”)

Is the paragraph mostly about the applicant, or other people?

At first glance, it may appear that this paragraph is as much about the mother as it is about the applicant. After all, the mother procured various services for her son and has done a marvelous job of caring for him.

Nevertheless, the applicant is not competing in any way with the mother. By demonstrating their flexibility and social skills, the applicant reinforces great qualities they’ve demonstrated elsewhere and remains at the top of our minds.

Could anyone else have written this paragraph, or is it unique to the applicant?

In isolation, perhaps. However, at this point in the personal statement, along with the loads of insights, thoughts, and feelings, there’s no question that this story is unique to the applicant.

Does the paragraph cover too much, or is there real depth?

This paragraph is another model of depth. The applicant goes into highly specific details about a memorable experience with a particular family. There’s significant showing vs. telling, which continues to maintain the reader’s engagement.

Paragraph 5

At the end of the appointment, the mom offered to let me hold her son, who gazed back at me with his bright blue eyes. While cradling the little boy humanized the medical details, the mother’s gesture displayed profound trust. Above all, this experience allowed me to recognize that interactions between a patient plus family and their doctor are more than intermediary vehicles to treatment; they are critical and beneficial in their own right. Learning this affirmed my longstanding desire and eagerness to become a physician. While research is essential and will surely always trigger my curiosity, I want my work to transcend the lab bench. Specifically, I want to continue engaging with patients and helping them through life’s difficult moments—with physical treatment and genuine support. And since working with each patient constitutes an entirely different experience, I know my medical career will never cease to be fulfilling.

Analysis

The final paragraph accomplishes three key goals: 1) concluding the story about meeting the boy and his mother; 2) bringing the applicant’s insights full circle; and 3) restating their interest in medicine while offering a preview of what type of physician they intend to be.

By describing how they built a trusting relationship with the patient and his mother, the applicant deliberately continues the theme of patient-centered care ultimately being more important to them—and to medicine—than underlying pathologies and interestingness of various medical scenarios.

Although the applicant does not circle back to the classroom story in the introduction, they close the loop with the personal statement’s central and most important story. In addition, they end on a high note by mentioning how enthusiastic they are about their medical career.

Does the applicant demonstrate qualities that are desirable in a physician? If so, which ones?

  • Trustworthy (e.g., “At the end of the appointment, the mom offered to let me hold her son, who gazed back at me with his bright blue eyes.”)

  • Insightful (e.g., “Above all, this experience allowed me to recognize that interactions between a patient plus family and their doctor are more than intermediary vehicles to treatment; they are critical and beneficial in their own right.”)

  • Patient-centered and caring (e.g., “While research is essential and will surely always trigger my curiosity, I want my work to transcend the lab bench. Specifically, I want to continue engaging with patients and helping them through life’s difficult moments—with physical treatment and genuine support.”)

Is the paragraph mostly about the applicant, or other people?

This paragraph is all about the applicant. Even the detail about cradling the boy highlights their earlier efforts in building trust with the family. After this brief conclusion to the story, the applicant explores their own developing insights about the field and how they intend to practice medicine in the future.

Could anyone else have written this paragraph, or is it unique to the applicant?

In combination with the insights shared in this paragraph, the story and details up to this point round out the personal statement uniquely.

Does the paragraph cover too much, or is there real depth?

Conclusion paragraphs should summarize insights and information presented earlier in the personal statement. The applicant does a fine job of solidifying their longstanding interest in medicine without adding significant new details, knowing they can cover additional stories throughout their secondary applications and during interviews.

Final Thoughts

At various points while writing your personal statement, you may wonder whether your essay is “good enough.”

The goal of this article isn’t to allow you to compare your personal statement to the sample we’ve provided. Rather, we want you to have a framework for evaluating your work to ensure that it conveys your outstanding qualities, engages the reader, and describes your authentic journey to medicine.

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