You’ve always been great at science and figured your research – whether in college, grad school, or professionally – would help you get into medical school.
Now you find it a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, you probably aced the MCAT science sections. On the other, you may be viewed (rightly or not) as one-dimensional, overly concerned with details, and prone to losing sight of the forest for the trees.
Physicians need a combination of science abilities and soft skills, and there are many ways your personal statement can fight the stereotype and show that you’re in fact a multi-dimensional human being with various interests and skills. Here are some questions to ask yourself when writing your winning personal statement:
What’s your story?
Your personal essay, although short, must still include the personal details that will give the admissions committee a clear picture of you. A laundry list of your accomplishments and talents can’t portray you as vividly as an illustrative story can.
Of course, this means that you need to be selective about what story (or stories) you tell. Can you relate compelling episodes from your research experience that reveal why you’ll make a great doctor? Do you foresee research being an important part of your future medical practice? If so, then it could be an appropriate subject for your personal statement.
(If you aren’t quite as keen about a research career, or want to focus on a different side of your story, you might consider using research as one of your three meaningful experiences – you can always provide more information in your secondaries and interviews.)
What’s your research about (in a nutshell)?
If you decide that research has been a unique and defining experience for you, how can you best express this to the admissions committee? You know your subject matter inside and out, but not everybody needs – or wants – that much detail.
Treat your personal statement as a personal introduction, not as an in-depth technical description of your work (again, you can do that in your secondaries and interviews). Briefly outline the goals of your research project and why it is significant. Use ordinary language – you might ask your liberal arts friends to read it. If it makes sense to them, you’ve succeeded.
What is your role?
In describing what you do in the lab, try to go beyond the basic facts to provide some color. Compare these two descriptions:
I’ve been involved with the Johnson lab for the past three years. My main role is inputting and interpreting data. I’m involved in weekly group discussions and have authored a review to determine efficacy. I’m also working on another review now and I’m interested in collecting data from various articles.
This description is not inaccurate, but it’s not going to thrill anyone either. However, from these few lines, the applicant can pull out elements of curiosity, critical thinking, and collaboration – some of the ideas that he wants to instill in the reader. But instead of making the reader do the work for you, bring them to the fore, as this applicant does:
I’ve been involved with the Johnson lab for the past three years. Inputting and interpreting data can be solitary work, but I thrive at our weekly group discussions where everyone shares their projects and helps each other with problems. My critical thinking skills have grown enormously through sharing the nuances of my data with my colleagues. For example…”
Don’t neglect the soft skills
Give equal time to the interpersonal skills that you gained through your research, along with specific examples of how you’ve used them. This will combat the stereotype of “science nerd” while showing the admissions committee that you’ve got what it takes for med school.
• You know patient interactions are important, so explain how interacting in lab meetings honed your empathetic and listening skills.
• You know that it’s essential to work closely with your classmates and colleagues, so write about tackling a problem with your mentor.
• You know leadership is important at medical school, so describe how you’ve trained students in the lab, or taken initiative in a new project.
Teamwork, communication, initiative, mentoring – these are just some of the qualities that medical schools look for in their students.
Why medical school?
Given your research background, you probably want to explain how it fits into your future. You aren’t expected to have all the answers at this point, but you should explain why you want to be a doctor in honest, heartfelt terms that go beyond a basic desire to “help people,” and implicitly answer the unasked question: why aren’t you going into pure research?
To get to the heart of this question, think about the people or events that were the catalyst for your decision to pursue medicine.
• Did you or a loved one experience a medical event?
• Were you exposed to health-related issues through your research?
• Did you have a significant experience while volunteering?
Don’t discount any experiences as too big or too small. Mundane essays about helping people in the abstract or facing a medical condition can become extraordinary when infused with your personality – both the big events and the nuances that make you who you are.
Just as important, you need to share your understanding of what practicing medicine will be like, based on your interactions with physicians. What do you love about the profession? Have you been inspired by doctors who balanced research and patient care? Knowing the challenges and difficulties, why is this still your career goal? Again, provide specific supporting examples. Your realistic expectations and first-hand observations will reflect your maturity and commitment to succeed as a physician.
Need more help?
As you’re writing about these things, make sure you do the following:
• Write a focused essay that goes beyond your GPA and MCAT scores.
• Select specific examples that demonstrate your strengths and make your essay come alive.
• Draw the reader into the story using anecdotes to illustrate your story and to bring out your unique experiences and perspectives.
You are more than just your science background. Let’s work together to bring your competitive advantage to light. Click here to get started.By Cydney Foote, former administrator at the University of Washington School of Medicine and author of three ebooks about medical education. Cyd has successfully advised medical school and residency applicants since 2001. Want Cyd to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!