Writing A Personal Statement For Medicine

"Shock tactics don't work in personal statements," Dr Kevin Murphy, admissions tutor for medicine at Imperial College London, says. "Sometimes candidates describe a scene from their work experience where someone gets their leg sawn off in the jungle – or something similar. But that's not the most effective way to start."

Some medical schools take personal statements more seriously than others – while Cardiff, Leeds and Keele formally assess non-academic aspects of a student's application, other universities, including Oxford and Imperial, use them more informally to get an impression of a candidate's suitability.

They all agree, though, that a personal statement gives students a chance to relay what they've learned from work experience and demonstrate that they have the non-academic skills required for medicine.

"Becoming a doctor is hard work," says Helen Diffenthal, assistant principal of Farnborough sixth-form college in Hampshire. "So use a personal statement to demonstrate your commitment, and that you won't give up when the going gets tough."

One way to show tutors that you are committed is through your work experience. Use it to prove that you have a realistic view of the profession.

Admissions tutors warn against naming places where you have worked, without any reflection on your time there. "Too often we get applications that look like a shopping list," says Paul Teulon, director of admissions at Kings College London. "We'd like to hear about a patient a student has come into contact with, or an experience they've had. It's just as valuable to have spent time with a hospital porter, as it is to have followed around the lead clinician."

Think also about the things you've done outside of school and how they demonstrate your skills. Teulon says: "A student might be involved with scouting or guiding, in a church group, or have done the Duke of Edinburgh."

Don't be afraid to include more unusual activities, as these can stand out. "If you were in a rock band, you could explain that you formed, led and developed it," Mike Jennings, senior lecturer at Sheffield Medical School, says. "Students might think a medical school won't be interested in that, but it shows staying power, teamwork and leadership."

Medical schools give varying advice on how to structure a personal statement, and about what skills they want applicants to demonstrate. This can make it difficult for students who want to impress a range of schools with one application.

"It can be a minefield for an applicant to work out whether they meet the criteria for different medical schools," admits Dr Austen Spruce, who is in charge of admissions for medicine at Birmingham University. "I advise students to write their personal statement to the highest threshold set by any of the universities, and then it will meet the criteria for all of them."

If you're applying to more than one school, check to see if they ask for different skills. "There's a certain amount of game-playing involved," Mike Jennings explains. "Applicants can phrase something in a certain way to meet more than one school's requirements."

When you've figured out what to include, it can be difficult to know how to begin your personal statement. Some teachers advise pupils to start with the second paragraph, get the statement written, and then pull out an interesting sentence or quote to use as an introduction.

"We tell them to write the first paragraph last," explains Diffenthal. "The first paragraph is often the weakest, so start with the second – a sentence about your experience might stand out and you can reorganise it afterwards."

What introductions should students avoid? "The weakest personal statements begin with 'I want to do medicine because my grandfather had a disease'," says Kim Piper, from the school of medicine at Queen Mary University. "I'd be nervous about someone who wanted to go into medicine for personal reasons, because they could be a nurse rather than a doctor."

While a well-written and coherent application is a must, students should be careful not to use overly complicated language. "Don't write your personal statement and then use a thesaurus to make it sound more grandiose," Paul Teulon says. "You're not using the language you would normally use, and that comes across."

The difficulty is in trying to tell everyone how fantastic you are, without being boastful, says Murphy. "It's a hard line to toe. I warn people against making grand pronouncements that they know they'll make a great doctor."

Ask for help if you need it, but avoid asking too many teachers or family members to go over your personal statement. "We want to hear the voice of a young person," says Teulon, "not a 55-year-old parent. I don't mind if they say they want to change the world because, frankly, if you can't say that at 18, I don't know when you can."

So be honest. Explain how you came to love medicine, and why you will be able to cope with a course that is tough, demanding and competitive. "The goal should be to receive one offer," says Paul Teulon. "Any more than that is a bonus."

And once you've sent it in, keep a copy of your personal statement and be prepared to back up everything you've written, because some medical schools will use it as a prop for an interview.

The medical school application is your single best opportunity to convince a group of strangers that you would be an asset both to the school and to the medical profession. It’s your opportunity to show yourself as something more than grades and scores. Granted, every person who applies will have strengths and weaknesses. But it’s how you present your strengths and weaknesses that really counts. Recommendation letters, personal statements, and admission interviews are ways to showcase your talents and convince the school that you have what it takes.

 

How to Get Great Recommendations

Letters of recommendation are typically sent in the latter part of the application process with Secondary Applications. However, it’s important that you start to think about and solicit your letters much earlier in the game.

Admissions committees are generally very specific about from whom they want to receive letters on your behalf. Don’t take these requirements lightly. You should do everything you can to give the medical schools exactly the kind of letters they have requested.

Sometimes a medical school will ask you for a “pre-med committee letter.” These letters are typically of two types: Either an original letter written by your undergraduate premedical committee on your behalf, or a summary of excerpts of comments made by individuals who have submitted letters (at your request) on your behalf. While the pre-med committee letter used to be a standard component of any applicant’s application, they are rarer today.

Alternatively, you will be asked to submit two or three individual letters of recommendation, of which at least one or two must come from senior science faculty. A letter written by a teaching assistant usually carries less weight. However, letters cosigned by both the teaching assistant and professor are generally acceptable. In addition to the recommendations from science faculty, most medical schools request a letter from a humanities or social science professor, especially for non-science majors. You may also be asked to submit a letter by someone familiar with your clinical experience, research, or work history.

Supplemental Letters of Recommendation

Generally, it is permissible to send supplemental letters of recommendation in addition to the required letters. But note, these will be additional letters, not letters in substitution of those requested. As a rule, you should never send more than twice the number of letters requested. Additionally, remember that more letters is not necessarily better. If you’re going to send supplemental letters they should substantively add to your application.

Make Your Recommendation Letters Personal

Recommendations are essentially personal sales letters written on your behalf and it’s important that the letter writer put the best pitch forward. Understand it this way: It’s clear that the more personal the letter, the better off you are. This means you need to get to know your professors or more importantly, you need to give your professors an opportunity to get to know you. Go to office hours; become a teaching assistant; volunteer to work in their lab; take them to lunch! Whatever it takes so that when the time comes, they will be able to write you a personal letter of recommendation.

When you approach someone to write a letter of recommendation, don’t hesitate to ask whether she can write you a strong letter of support. If the person hesitates in any way, look elsewhere. Although this may be embarrassing, it will hurt you a lot more in the long run to have someone write you a lukewarm or unenthusiastic letter of recommendation. Remember, schools fully expect these letters to be glowing endorsements. Once you have garnered a positive response, be sure to provide your recommender with a resume to provide a more complete picture of you as a person. If you have a strong academic record, you may want to include a copy of your transcript to showcase your academic prowess and consistency. Your Personal Statement and any articles or papers which you think may be helpful should also be offered. Finally, always provide the writer with clear directions for electronic or hard-copy submission of the letter to the appropriate school(s). You should provide addressed and stamped envelopes when needed.

Pre-meds who procrastinate will be left scrambling to get recommendations. Professors and teaching assistants can become overwhelmed with requests. You can imagine the potential quality of these letters. You must give at least one month for your letter writers to write and submit the letters. Keep track of the status of your letters. As the deadlines approach, call and check on their progress. Once you’ve confirmed that your letters have been sent, thank-you notes are a nice touch. Personal visits are in order after you’ve been accepted.

 

How to Write an Effective Personal Statement

The term “Personal Statement” brings a shiver to the spine of many a potential medical student. You should think of the personal statement, however, as an opportunity to show admissions officers what you’re made of. They want to know why you want to enter the medical profession and this is your chance to tell them as clearly and compellingly as you can.

Purposes of a Personal Statement

The Personal Statement shows whether or not you can write a clear, coherent essay that’s logically and grammatically correct. These days, students’ writing skills are often presumed deficient until proven otherwise. If you plan on submitting your application through AMCAS, the length of your personal statement should be 5300 characters, which should be ample space to succinctly set yourself apart from other applicants.

Second, it provides you with the opportunity to present the admissions committee with more of a “three-dimensional” portrait of yourself as a deserving candidate than GPA and MCAT numbers possibly can. What you choose to write sends clear signals about what’s important to you and what your values are. You can explain why you really want to pursue medical graduate work and the career path it will enable you to follow. Your essay also enables you to explain things like weaknesses or gaps in an otherwise commendable record.

How Do Med Schools Use Personal Statements?

Essays are the best way for admissions officers to determine who you are. So, don’t hesitate to go beyond your current experience for essay topics. Feel free to discuss past events that, in part, define who you are. If you have overcome significant obstacles, say so. If you were honored with an award, describe the award and what you did to achieve recognition.

Give some thought to how your past and current experiences have contributed to your intellectual, personal and professional development. Rather than make pronouncements about goals and future activities, which are easily made-up and often exaggerated, select a few stories from your life experiences that showcase the qualities and characteristics that you already possess and that will help you be an empathic, committed doctor. Always remember the adage: Show; don’t tell. Start early, write several drafts, and edit, edit, edit.

 

Top 7 Tips for Med School Personal Statements

  • Avoid the Rehashed Resume

    The personal statement is not the time to recount all your activities and honors in list-like fashion.

  • Make It Personal

    This is your opportunity to put a little panache into the application. Show the admissions committee why you decided to go into medicine. Was it an experience you had in school? Was there a particular extracurricular activity that changed your way of thinking? Did you find a summer lab job so exhilarating that it reconfirmed your love for science? Use vignettes and anecdotes to weave a story and make the essay a pleasure to read.

  • Avoid Controversial Topics

    If you do include discussion of a “hot topic,” definitely avoid being dogmatic or preachy. You don’t want to take the risk of alienating a reader who may not share your politics.

  • Don’t Get Too Creative

    Now is not the time to write a haiku. Remember, the medical establishment is largely a scientific community (although individual physicians may be passionate artists, poets, writers, musicians, historians, etc.). On the other hand, don’t be trite and don’t be boring. Avoid writing “I want to be a doctor because…”

  • No Apologies

    For instance, if you received a C in physics, you may feel compelled to justify it somehow. Unless you believe that the circumstances truly do merit some sort of mention, don’t make excuses. You don’t need to provide them with a road map to your weaknesses. If you had a bad year or semester because of illness, family problems, etc., ask your pre-med advisor to explain the details in his or her cover letter.

  • Write Multiple Drafts

    Have your pre-med advisor and perhaps an English teaching assistant read and edit it. Proofread, proofread, and proofread some more. Also, try reading it out loud. This is always a good test of clarity and flow.

  • Think Ahead to Interviews

    Interviewers often use your personal statement as fodder for questions. Of course, if you’ve included experiences and ideas that are dear to you, that you feel strongly about, you will have no problem speaking with passion and confidence. Nothing is more appealing to admissions folks than a vibrant, intelligent, and articulate candidate. If you write about research you conducted five years ago, you’d better brush up before your interviews. Don’t engage in hyperbole: You risk running up against an interviewer who will see through your exaggerations.

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