Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Family Aerospace's Suggestions on Medical School Personal Statements

Originally posted June 2010 on the SDN blogs.

Look, I've read a lot of personal statements from everything from high school, college, medical school, graduate school, and I think there have been some law school ones in there. I have seen writing that has really ranged from "How did this person get into college?" to "This person needs to not become a doctor and instead become a professional writer."

Since this is SDN and I assume many of you are aiming for a career in medicine, I want to give you guys some pointers on some of the things that have driven me crazy in the 150+ medical school personal statements I've read. Sorry for the non ideal formatting. Stupid HTML.

  1. Please, for the love of all that is holy, answer "Why Medicine?" (If you're a non-trad, you not only have to answer "Why Medicine?" but also "Why now?") You would not believe how many personal statements fail to address this. As I've told multiple people, take a pad of paper and go to a park somewhere. Write "Why Medicine?" at the top of a sheet of paper. Sit quietly and write down what your heart tells you. Use that to help you write your draft. When I did this, I realised I had a much better reason to become a doctor than I thought I did and my personal statement is really just an extremely polished version of my journal entry for "Why Medicine?". Further down on this post I mention some poor things I have heard for "Why Medicine?"
  2. Please use your own voice. Don't try to sound intellectual or as if you swallowed a dictionary. I want to be able to read your statement and hear your voice come through as if you are sitting in my office talking to me. Although we may not admit it, readers judge you on how you write. Think of it, when was the last time you enjoyed a story where the writer was grandiloquent and supercilious?
  3. This goes along with the dictionary comment, but please know the meaning of the words you use. Every word, even synonyms, carry with them a certain meaning in a certain context. Make sure you use the correct word. This is what makes writing both an art and a science.
  4. Please don't use more words than is necessary. Adverbs and adjectives should be used sparingly. This is an essay with a character limit, not a novel. Make sure every character matters. This is another reason why it is good to assure the use of the correct word for the meaning you are trying to convey.
  5. There are very few people who can successfully pull off the "flashback" as an opening and make a good transition to the rest of your essay. I assure you, you are probably not one of them. You can certainly try though.
  6. While I appreciate imagery as much as the next guy, don't overdo it. Remember that suggestion about using too many words? It's fluff.
  7. Please save the drama for your mama. Also a paper cut is not a severed artery. I'm just sayin'.
  8. Make yourself stand out if you can. If you've read enough personal statements, you will see that everyone is saying the exact same thing, often times in the same few words. After a while it gets monotonous. You don't have to cure cancer, but you do have to do something to stand out. You want the adcomm to say "Oh the essay that talked about doing first aid when hiking that's Mr/Ms Smith," not "That was applicant 4701."
  9. Unless your economically disadvantaged background is specifically relevant to the story of "Why Medicine," don't waste your characters on it! You have ~1300 characters in the ED section. Please put it there.
  10. Please don't give me a laundry list of your activities. If one of your activities really helps you to answer "Why Medicine?" then you can mention it. Telling me that you did research on whether or not a snozberry really does taste like a snozberry doesn't help me figure out why YOU want to be a doctor. It just tells me you worked on snozberries. The AMCAS gives you 15 slots for EC activities such as research, teaching, etc. Put your information there unless it really, really, really honestly helps you answer the question. We can see through the BS.
  11. Mentioning TV shows is fine, but I really hope there is something more than "I watched ER once and I LOVED it and decided from then on I wanted to be a doctor." Go off, spend some time in the ED. You can say the show inspired you to learn more about the reality, but use the reality as your focus.
  12. Pls dun't rite lkie dis. Unless you are on icanhascheezburger, grammar checker and spell checker are your friends. That being said, some of my favourite joke "personal statements" have been in lolspeak (although my absolute favourite was a non-lolspeak poem).
  13. Yes you can write about controversial issues assuming it helps you answer why medicine.
  14. You can even write about negative things and poor experiences so as long as you can spin it into a positive.
  15. To the LGBT community, YES you can come out in your personal statement. BUT please have a reason for doing so. Do you want to help the LGBT community? Did your grades suffer a little because you were homeless for a few years because your parents couldn't accept you? Did you watch a friend die because they were turned away from the doctor's office because they were gay?
  16. To my Non-Trads : One of the biggest problems non-trads have is that they are trying to fit the "formula" of the personal statements of trad students. Not only is the formula a pretty bad formula to start with (plus the formula was created by other premeds who may or may not get into medical school so I'm not sure their advice is even relevant), but the NTs have so much more to work with! Trying to shove an NT life experience in a trad based statement formula is like trying to shove a square peg in a round hole.
  17. The statement needs to be set aside for a few days and then revise it.
  18. Have lots of other people read it. Revise it. Repeat as necessary.

Here are some reasons that I have seen listed for "Why Medicine?" which I think are poor reasons
  1. Good grades - I know, you're probably very smart like all the other people on SDN. The adcomms know how smart you and everyone else are. With good grades you can do whatever. The question is WHY MEDICINE?
  2. Love science - Well I would hope you like if not love science. So why an MD/DO and not a PhD in science?
  3. Help people - there are about a zillion other jobs that also help people. Nurse comes to mind. Teacher comes to mind. Police. Firefighter. Why do you want to be a doctor?
  4. Prestige - I'm sorry, if this is the real reason, you need to make sure I know where you are practicing because I don't want you as my doctor.
  5. Money - See my comment to prestige.
  6. "To get chicks" - you think I'm kidding, but I have actually seen statements that said that in those EXACT WORDS. I don't know what bothers me more, calling a woman a "chick" or the fact you're applying to medical school for all the women who you think are going to be flocking over your butt.
  7. "Medicine is all I know" - I think this reason terrifies me more than anything I have ever heard in my life. Medical school will teach you medicine, your life and your experiences prior to medical school will help you learn to be a human being which you will need to learn prior to becoming a doctor. Go out, do something, explore the world, then come back and tell me why medicine.

Diversity Essays (added Jan 2011)

I've been giving some thoughts on diversity essays and this section is an edited version of a comment I posted to a forum question.

A diversity essay should reflect how YOU contribute to the diversity of the school. Everyone is not the same, but no one is completely unique either. Here are some things to think about. This is far from exclusive and by all means if you come up with something that isn't on the list, please PM me and I'll add it if it is appropriate.
  1. Are you non-trad? - Non trads contribute to diversity by default due to their life experience
  2. Are you married?
  3. Do you have kids?
  4. Were you disadvantaged growing up?
  5. Were you/are you from the country? - When I say this, I am referring to actually living in a rural area, not just attending school in one.
  6. Are you a first generation college student? - Remember med students are still primarily from educated families.
  7. Are you disabled?
  8. Are you a racial minority?
  9. Are you a religious minority? - I personally would be wary about using this one, but I'm just putting it out there.
  10. Are you LGBT?
  11. Did you have any work experience that other applicants are unlikely to have?
  12. Did you spend a lot of time in a foreign country?
  13. Do you speak other languages fluently?
  14. Did you major in a non-science?


  1. Thank you so much for putting up your opinions about putting LGBT identities in a personal statement. It's something I've been struggling with on whether to include or not. I am still on the fence about mentioning my interest in pursuing gender reassignment surgery and working specifically with the trans community. What do you think?

  2. I'm ftm (on T, post-top, probably non-op bottom) myself and the only reason I mentioned it in my personal statement was because I had two big moments on how I came into medicine and one reason why I did it so late. In college, I ended up with a horrible phobia of doctors (long story) which lasted several years until I met some trans-friendly ones who worked to help restore my faith in medicine.

    My defining moment of "why medicine" came about because one of my dearest friends (post-op mtf) was turned away multiple times because she was visibly trans. She died because of this neglect and I ended up so upset that it has been "Medicine or Bust" ever since. If your reason for pursuing medicine is because of a patient experience or something along those lines you don't have to write it in a separate essay and could put it in your PS. If not, definitely at least put it in diversity.

    As for whether or not you want to say you might want GRS in the future, well that is really up to you. You don't have to out yourself as trans and any surgery you might want is really none of their business. In my case, I didn't have a lot of choice and I had to struggle... I mean REALLY struggle... on what to say, how to say it, etc. A lot of the lessons I learned from dealing with that issue formed the basis of my advice on this entry. You can say you want to serve the underserved trans community and not out yourself if you are early enough in transition. It's all up to you.

    Remember a lot of schools are conservative and might hold it against you. Some are liberal and are actively recruiting LGBT students. Pick your schools very carefully.

    By the way, for future reference, it's usually easier to get to me through SDN plus I will not censor myself nearly as bad as I do on a blog comment. :)