The personal statement is the only place in the AMCAS, AACOMAS and TMDSAS primary applications where you get to present yourself directly to the admissions committee. Here, you can persuade them to give you an interview, or – if you’re not careful – unknowingly reveal red flags that undermine your entire application. Since it plays such a powerful role in how you are viewed as an applicant, you’ll want to spend a significant amount of time on getting it right.
With a decade of experience in medical school admissions, I would like to share some of the most unsuccessful approaches that you must avoid:
What NOT to do #1: DON’T use this space as a tell-all
Many students focus on their own or family members’ medical conditions in their personal statements. The essay sometimes reads like a medical history. Taking this approach can hurt your application for several reasons: It may alert them to conditions that could impact your ability to perform in medical school, indicate that you lack boundaries by oversharing, or suggest a lack of maturity in focusing only on yourself and family – rather than on helping others or serving the community.
What NOT to do #2: DON’T throw a pity party
Anything you share in your personal statement can be brought up in your interview. If you share details of painful events, losses, or failures that you have not yet processed or come to terms with, that disclosure could come across as an invitation for the reader to pity you.
Accepting long-term changes in our lives transforms us; we are constantly evolving through our experiences. Until you have integrated this information into your identity, depending on how impactful it was, you may not be able to use the experience to shed insight on yourself quite yet. Use negative experiences that are at least a year or older depending on how long it takes you to process and reflect. Most importantly, use them to show growth and resilience, not to create pity.
What NOT to do #3: DON’T demonstrate a lack of compassion or empathy
One of the creepiest essays I’ve ever read – it still sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it – was a student’s description of how much she enjoyed anesthetizing and removing the brains of mice. Her intention was to share her love of science, research, and learning but the feverish glee with which she described these procedures lacked compassion for the creatures that lost their lives for her research project. This lack of respect for the sacredness of life made it an easy decision to reject her application. Research was probably a better path for her, especially since she wasn’t able to gauge the reaction her statements would have on her audience.
What NOT to do #4: DON’T bargain
The least fun essays to read are those that contain more promises than a politician’s speech. They include statements like, “If accepted into this program, I will….” The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If you really want to demonstrate what you are capable of achieving during your medical education, give examples of what you have already accomplished. This approach is far stronger than making hollow promises.
What NOT to do #5: Don’t complain
Criticizing or pointing out the failures of healthcare professionals who have treated you or whom you have observed in the past will only reflect negatively on you. Since your application will be reviewed by doctors, as well as admissions professionals, it’s critical that you do not insult those from whom you are seeking acceptance. While it is true that medical mistakes and lack of access to care have devastating consequences for patients, their families and communities, identifying ways to improve in these areas without pointing any fingers would be more effective. By demonstrating your realistic knowledge of patient needs and sharing potential solutions, you can present yourself as an asset to their team.
There are more examples of bad personal statements than successful ones. Be careful what you write. Create a personal statement that is honest (not bitter), reveals your personality (not your medical history), and delivers a compelling explanation for your motivations for entering medicine (not empty promises).
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Alicia McNease Nimonkar is an Accepted advisor and editor specializing in healthcare admissions. Prior to joining Accepted, Alicia worked for five years as Student Advisor at UC Davis’ postbac program where she both evaluated applications and advised students applying successfully to med school and related programs. Want Alicia to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!