Having reviewed thousands of personal statements over the years, admissions committee chairman John T. Pham, DO, has come up with his own rule of thumb.
“When I look at a personal statement, if it doesn’t catch my attention in the first paragraph, then I’m not interested in reading further,” says Dr. Pham, who is the vice chair of the department of family medicine at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest in Lebanon, Oregon.
The personal statement provides an important glimpse of a candidate’s noncognitive traits such as self-awareness, empathy, passion and fortitude. A vivid well-written essay conveying a medical school or residency program applicant’s motivations and aspirations can be a deciding factor in inviting that candidate in for an interview.
“The personal statement is really the only way you can make a memorable mark on admission committee members before you meet them,” says Benjamin K. Frederick, MD, a third-year radiology resident in Columbia, Missouri, who runs an essay-editing service called Edityour.net.
Dr. Pham advises students to have their personal statements critiqued before submitting them to medical schools or residency programs. Applicants should seek feedback on their draft essays from their classmates, physician mentors, college guidance counselors, and friends or family members with strong editorial skills, he says.
Some students take this process a step further by seeking professional help with their statements. Dr. Pham is not opposed to students’ enlisting help from private admissions consultants and essay editors as long as the personal statement reflects the applicant’s own words, insights and experiences.
But Adam Hoverman, DO, who has reviewed many personal statements to assess med school and residency applicants, is concerned that heavily edited, overly polished essays do not accurately portray a candidate’s communication skills.
“Being able to organize your thoughts and write effectively is vital for transmitting knowledge as a physician,” says Dr. Hoverman, an assistant professor of family medicine and global health at the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine in Yakima, Washington. “An essay that reflects someone else’s skill set is misleading.”
But those who provide essay-editing services argue that they help future physicians become better, more reflective communicators. If it weren’t for their help, they maintain, many talented, compassionate individuals would not gain entrance to medical school or competitive residencies.
Medical school candidates often produce personal statements that are superficial and clichéd, says Linda Abraham, the founder of Accepted.com, an admissions consulting and essay-editing firm.
“The applicants will write in very generic terms about how they want to help people, and you don’t see where this comes from,” she says. “They don’t give their background story, and they don’t provide examples.”
When I look at a personal statement, if it doesn’t catch my attention in the first paragraph, then I’m not interested in reading further.
Dr. Frederick notes that many students try to cram too much information into their personal statements, which end up reading like CVs or résumés.
“The personal statement should be a narrative about an experience that led to personal growth in the pursuit of a medical career,” he says.
Vagueness and a lack of illustrative stories are the death knell of many personal statements, says medical school admissions consultant Cynthia Lewis, PhD.
“What I tell my applicants is that only one half of one sentence in a paragraph should be ‘This is what I did.’ The rest needs to be a reflection on why you did something,” says Dr. Lewis, founder of Lewis Associates. “What did you get out of it? How did it change you? How do you think differently about the world as a result of this experience?”
Telling a story
When Dr. Pham reads a personal statement, he wants to be wowed by the applicant’s story. Maybe the candidate decided to pursue medicine because of experiences in the Peace Corps, hardships overcome, a community service project, a family member’s battle with a disease or any other life-changing situation.
“Does the personal statement engage me from the get-go?” Dr. Pham asks himself. “Does it have a good story line and tell me a lot about the person and whether he or she is really dedicated to medicine?”
Being able to organize your thoughts and write effectively is vital for transmitting knowledge as a physician.
Applicants to osteopathic medical school are limited to 4,500 characters (including spaces), roughly 700 words, for their personal statement, so it must be concise and to the point. Dr. Lewis recommends that candidates divide their personal statements into three components. The first part, she says, should be a one-paragraph “uniqueness statement”—something significant the applicant has accomplished, a passionate interest or hobby, or a challenging or deeply moving experience.
She recalls one client who had several stories to choose from. When he was studying abroad in Spain, his wallet was stolen while he was traveling in England and he had to navigate Europe without his passport or any other ID. He also learned how to play flamenco guitar that year.
“You need to pick one key experience or interest and talk about it,” Dr. Lewis says. “This will say a lot about you, what you care about and how you think.”
The second part of the personal statement should describe the applicant’s journey to medicine, she says. The candidate should explain in a couple of paragraphs what initiated his or her interest in becoming a physician, what has sustained that ambition over time, and why he or she feels ready to apply to medical school.
Taking considerable time to self-reflect and write a compelling personal statement is a valuable exercise.
The final part of the essay should explore the candidate’s interest in osteopathic medicine. “Don’t just say, ‘I shadowed an osteopathic physician,’ ” urges Dr. Lewis. “Explain what you learned from the experience and how you might incorporate osteopathic philosophy into your future practice.
“If you are applying to osteopathic medical schools, the people evaluating your application need to see that you have an understanding of the osteopathic approach to care.”
However, warns Dr. Pham, applicants should not try to address all of the osteopathic tenets in the essay, which would seem forced and insincere.
“Applicants should not tell us what they think we want to hear,” he insists. “We know that many students apply to both DO and MD schools. But if a student is strictly applying to osteopathic schools, it’s important to tell us why.”
Unlike personal statements for osteopathic medical school, which are submitted with the application through AACOMAS, those for residency can be customized to the specialty and program, as ERAS permits. But that doesn’t make them any easier to write, says Kim M. Peck, the director of academic and career guidance at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MSUCOM) in East Lansing.
Residency candidates need to tell the story of how they came to be interested in a particular specialty and what their long-term career goals are, according to Peck. “I advise students to be specific,” she says. “Don’t just say, for instance, that you are good with your hands and would make a great surgeon. Give an example of how you came to realize that, including details. Did an attending compliment you when you assisted with suturing? Was it an interaction with a hospitalized patient that helped you make up your mind?”
MSUCOM’s website includes a list of 14 questions students should ask themselves before they begin writing their first draft, such as “Which course work and clinical experiences have you enjoyed the most and why?” and “What is unique about you and your experiences?”
The process of writing an effective personal statement may take months, not just days or weeks, Peck says.
“Medical students are so busy doing rotations, taking shelf exams, and jumping through all of the hoops that are part of the residency process that they often don’t have time to think about themselves and where they’re going,” she observes. “Taking considerable time to self-reflect and write a compelling personal statement is a valuable exercise that helps ensure that students are making sound, thoughtful career decisions.”
Medical communication: An overlooked skill?
Googling “medical personal statement editing” yields more than 590,000 links to services and informational websites.
“Evidently, these services have arisen because of demand: Students feel they have not been adequately prepared as premeds to write persuasive personal essays,” says Dr. Hoverman, who stresses that educators should be teaching aspiring physicians communication skills alongside biology and chemistry.
“The ability to frame your thoughts in a manner that is productive for a peer, a patient or the community is substantially relevant in all aspects of health care,” he says.
Premeds interested in educating themselves can take electives such as creative writing classes and advanced speech classes. Medical students may consider pursuing writing opportunities on their own, such as starting a blog or writing research papers or articles for medical publications.
Picking up communication skills will help aspiring physicians do much more than write better personal statements, Dr. Hoverman notes.
“Organizing clinical teams, developing treatment plans, engaging in health advocacy—all of these things require physicians to be excellent communicators,” he says. “Consequently, a personal statement should genuinely reflect an applicant’s communication skills.”
Your UCAS personal statement is your chance to show universities why you deserve a place on their course. It’s also your opportunity to stand out against other candidates with similar grades. We’ve put together this list of things to avoid when writing your personal statement, to help you get a place on the course you really want.
Don’t use quotes
The clue is in the title; the personal statement should be all about you. A quote doesn’t give you the chance to show why you should be given a place on the course and can use up a significant proportion of your 4,000 characters.
"Don’t mention particular university names in your personal statement. Make us believe we are your top choice"
Don’t use clichés
Hundreds of personal statements include lines like ‘since I was a child’ and ‘I’ve always been fascinated by’. If there was a particular event or moment in time which sparked your interest for your subject, talk about that instead. Make sure you mention concrete examples, not your wishes and dreams. Not only does it make your personal statement more individual to you, it will also give you something to talk about if you get called to interview.
"Use concrete examples to back up statements and facts"
UCAS will run your personal statement through plagiarism software so don’t be tempted to copy and paste anything off the internet! Never lie about anything on your personal statement - don’t say you’ve read a book when you’ve only read a chapter. If you are invited for an interview, your personal statement will shape the discussion, so don’t get caught out.
"Don’t write anything you’re not prepared to expand on at interview"
Don’t forget your personal interests
The most important part of your personal statement is where you talk about the subject you are applying for and why you want to study it, but your non-academic hobbies and interests come a close second. Admissions tutors want to see what you’re like as a person, so use your hobbies and interests to show examples of your skills. If you’re a member of a sports team you could use this to highlight your team-working and communication skills.
Don’t write a generic statement
For the best chance of being offered a place, you need to tailor your personal statement to the skills and qualities universities are looking for. Look at university prospectuses and websites to see how they describe the course and the way it is taught. Make sure you address these skills and qualities in your personal statement.
When you write your personal statement, you should always use the ‘so what?’ rule. Make sure every point you make clearly explains why you should be given a place on the course, and if it doesn’t, delete it.
"Don’t be modest, say how good you are"
Don’t be afraid to stand out
Admissions tutors are looking for evidence that you have a passion for your subject beyond your A-Level studies. In order to stand out from the hundreds of other applications, you need to think about what you have done, and how this is relevant to the subject you’re applying for. What makes you unique? For example, nearly everyone applying for Economics will probably say they read The Economist and The Financial Times – what do you do that is different?
Don’t over think it
For most people, the hardest parts of writing a personal statement are the opening and closing sentences. You need to make it clear from the beginning why you want to study your chosen course. A good way to do this is by opening with something interesting, unusual or surprising. It can be stressful trying to come up with the perfect opening sentence, but don’t worry about it too much; it will suddenly just hit you.
"Get someone else to check your personal statement, but make sure any changes still reflect you."
Make sure your get someone to check what you’ve written! If our Admissions team could give you one piece of advice, it’s to get someone else to sense check your personal statement. Ask a teacher, your friend or a parent to read it through. Or better still, someone else’s parent who doesn’t know you as well – they might not know what you want to study or your aspirations for the future, but should after reading it.
Other useful resources for successful personal statements
The Student Room personal statement builder
UCAS - writing a personal statement
More university help and advice