A couple of weeks ago, the program director for my postbac program sent me an email asking if I’d participate in a panel discussion for this year’s current inmates (the kids going through the wringer like I did last year) about the interview process. It dawned on me that my cohort is exactly a year removed from when we began the application process last year.
If you’ll remember from my timeline post, The Long Haul Begins, the primary med school application doesn’t even open until June. On the advice of this same program director, we were told to start our personal statements over winter break – for me, just over a year ago.
Now that I’m this grizzled, jaded veteran of the process who has achieved some small degree of success – I am going somewhere for med school next year, the only question is where – I thought I’d pass along a bit of unsolicited advice for the personal statement. Admissions committees use these to get a flavor for who you are, and if you’re extended an interview, you better be prepared to talk about it.
(As a reference point, data from the AAMC indicates that the personal statement is just the 6th-most important variable going into receiving an interview offer, behind rec letters, science GPA, medically-related community service, cumulative GPA, and your MCAT score, in order. So don’t freak out if you’re not the next F. Scott Fitzgerald.)
My unsolicited and thoroughly biased two cents:
Cent One: Tell a story. Admissions committee members read a gazillion of these every year. At last check, around 90,000 people took the MCAT in 2012. Not all of them will apply, but most will – and almost all apply to multiple schools. The committees are reading a LOT of these.
To paraphrase one interviewer, it’s rare to read a truly unique personal statement. Unless you have an incredible, documentary-worthy story, you aren’t the first person to help open a clinic in Senegal or rescue a stranger’s puppy by facing down a rampaging, demonically rabid grizzly bear. The essay is designed to give a flavor for who you are, not what you’ve done.
So show the reader who you are. You can, of course, use your experiences as evidence or as a framework – like I did, writing about my time as an EMT – but use that framework as an opportunity to tell a story.
I wrote about my first “lights and sirens” true emergency as an EMT in college. My goal wasn’t to talk about how I saved someone’s life – mostly I stood around, scared shitless, and watched – but rather to use the experience to illustrate how my reaction to the call shows my interest in medicine.
If you can draw your reader in to a narrative – a narrative you’ve created, with an underlying message – you’ve already won. Another interviewer told me that you can group personal statements into three general categories:
- I faced adversity and overcame it! Yay, my determination!
- I had a light bulb moment that one time/was birthed with a sphygmomanometer/love carbonyl chemistry slash helping people! So I should probably be a doctor!
- I am so accomplished! Let me tell you about all of them!
It isn’t terrible to fall into a category. Really, it’s hard to avoid – you want to write something that communicates why you want to be a doctor, why you like medicine, and talk about how awesome you are. That lends itself generally to the three categories above. Mine, for example, fell into the “light bulb moment” category, and I turned out okay.
Cent Two: What makes you interesting? If you’re going to fall into a category anyway, might as well use it to explain why you’re a pretty cool person. The conventional wisdom here is to say, “explain what makes you different from all the other applicants.” There are 90,000 of them. If you don’t think there’s at least one other person in that pool that has a similar profile to you, prepare to be slapped by reality.
You aren’t going to be unique, so don’t bother trying to prove the impossible (I know, everyone is their own special snowflake, but this is a reality check here). What you should try to prove is that you are interesting. There are a lot of boring applicants – people who have checked all the boxes and look pretty good on paper. I’m one of them. You are, too, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
The personal statement is what can elevate you from boring to interesting – and to me, at least, that’s a bigger victory than trying super-hard to appear unique.
How do you make yourself interesting? Refer to Cent One – tell the story. If you’re a funny person, try some humor (with care). If you nurture a secret hobby for painting very small dolls with henna, okay, weird, but that’s interesting. Won an award for a paper you presented? I don’t care, unless you cured canker sores or figured out how to board airplanes without pissing everyone off.
But tell me about your crazy reviewer who grilled you about that paper and how you dealt with him (I have poise); tell me about how you once ate nothing but ramen noodles for twelve days trying to finish up the references section (I have determination). Tell me something that reveals the “you” behind your big fancy certificate.
And for God’s sake, don’t list your accomplishments. Your accomplishments are not interesting. How you achieved them is.