Writing the first draft of your personal statement is probably the hardest part of the whole application process. And it makes sense – it’s not easy to capture so much of your experience onto a single page.
Transforming your first draft from just OK to simply spectacular
I’ve read hundreds of first drafts over the years. Most were okay. Not stellar, but that could be polished up enough to probably win an interview at an average program.
But I’ve also read a few first drafts that totally blew me away, ones that told me the applicant would be accepted somewhere great. These were first drafts that, although the language might not be sharp or the organization might be terribly muddled, already contained the core of what would be an astounding final version. In fact, sometimes in the most focused, sharp sounding, well-written essays, applicants are just too focused on how their story sounds to really recognize what was special about it.
Write big, even when word counts are small
When you allow your first draft to be expansive, writing and writing without worrying about limitations, wonderful things can happen. I frequently find the best ideas are hidden, just waiting to be pulled out and put center-stage. For instance, in the middle of one applicant’s four-page first draft, this gem was tucked away:
The radiology attending was pointing out how sometimes we forget that in interpretation that it is still an image and not an actual person. However, our interpretation will significantly impact the human and not the image. This same radiologist on a separate occasion while a resident and I were looking at a plain film of the chest brought up the same point, but in a very creative way. He pulled up a painting by René Magritte that said “This is not a Pipe.” In this painting, Magritte cleverly communicates with his viewers that it was truly not a pipe, but an “image” of a pipe.
This passage concealed an essential truth of how this applicant had come to view radiology. We brought it to the start of her personal statement, and used it to set the stage for an essay focused on the radiologist’s commitment to her patients:
“The Treachery of Images,” one of surrealist artist René Magritte’s most famous works, depicts an ordinary pipe with “this is not a pipe” written below it. While a resident and I examined a chest x-ray, our attending pulled out this image. I immediately understood his meaning. What we saw was not truly a pipe, only its image; similarly, a chest x-ray was only a representation of what we were really seeing. It was a reminder that what was revealed in these shadowed images – the reality behind the image – could be used to treat our patients.
Many things stand out about this introduction. This revelation about radiology is expressed in a creative way that shares something about the expanse of her education. The way she seems to effortlessly extrapolate these other aspects of her life to this chosen specialty implies a level of comfort with this specialty – a way of thinking of herself already as a practitioner of it. It also helped roll out a very clear structure for the essay focusing on how these images could help real people.
This applicant succeeded because she gave herself the freedom to write expansively in her first draft, expressing – albeit unknowingly – what was special in her story. Whatever your educational goal, try giving yourself this freedom, and allowing yourself to discover what is special about your own story.
Having trouble getting those first few words and sentences of your application essay up on your computer screen? Don’t fret – even the most accomplished novelists or famous journalists have a tough time getting started.
Tempted to get up and do something – anything! – rather than stare at that blank screen for another second?
One piece of advice: DON’T.
STAY WHERE YOU ARE.
AND SET A TIMER FOR 15 MINUTES.
AND MOST IMPORTANT…
WRITE, WRITE, AND WRITE SOME MORE UNTIL THAT TIMER GOES OFF.
When you start to write a few words on the page – even words like “I don’t know what to say” – something miraculous happens. Suddenly, there are WORDS on the page, not just blank space. And these words will inspire you to continue writing.
Here are 2 reasons why you should JUST KEEP WRITING:
This is your warm-up
Think of this 15–minute exercise as a warm-up. It’s not a marathon, but it’s a quick jog that will remind your body that it DOES INDEED know how to run. Maybe all you’ve done is written about how you have nothing to write, but the actual act of writing will trigger your writer’s reflex and motivate you to keep up the momentum and write something more and – hopefully – something of substance.
Words beget words
Your babbling string of “I’m writing but I really don’t have anything to say” will likely transform into, “well, maybe I have a thing or two worth mentioning.” You’ll see.
How to make the most of your early essay draft
Now you know WHY you should keep on writing. But what can you do to ensure that you’ll make the most of your time?
Turn off your devices
I guarantee that all of this advice will work, but with one big BUT: You must turn off your devices. 15 minutes of writing isn’t a real 15 minutes if halfway through you check Instagram and send a Snap. It just won’t work. So hard as it is to do…just turn off your phone and resist the temptation to open a new tab.
You’re more likely to make it through your 15-minute writing workout if you know you’ve got a reward waiting for you. Whether it’s a social media break, a coffee with a friend, or an ice cream sundae – just knowing that it’s there and waiting will help motivate you to keep on going.
Get ready, get set…go!
It’s time to start! UNPLUG and set an alarm for 15 minutes. Then ask yourself: What do I care about? What do I enjoy doing? What’s important to me? And write. Your only commitment is to keep going until you hear that beep. When the timer goes off, STOP. Hit “Save.” And then go get yourself a double scoop of sweet, cold, decadent ice cream.
Need help getting started? Talk to our experts – we’re here to answer your questions, motivate you, and help you get ACCEPTED!
A former fellowship admissions committee member and administrator at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Cydney Foote has successfully advised healthcare applicants, including those applying to medical school, dental school, nursing and PA programs, veterinary school, public health and hospital administration programs, post-baccalaureate medical programs, residencies and fellowships. Since 2001, she has brought her marketing and writing expertise to help science-focused students communicate their strengths. Want Cyd to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!