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What are the most important things I should write about in my personal statement?
I have not had one single experience that made me interested in medicine, but rather a culmination of events. Do admissions committees prefer to hear about a defining experience or moment? More generally, what are admissions committees looking for in applications? What do they prefer not to see? Are there elements that all personal statements should contain?
To answer this question, I've broken it down into segments:
"What are the most important things I should write about in my personal statement?"
A personal statement should clearly answer the question, "Why do I want to be a doctor?" It should be personal in that it contains elements that only apply to you. The most important thing to write about will vary because each person's journey into medicine is different. If your personal statement could also be your best friend's or some woman off the street's, than it is not a good one.
Writing a personal statement is a process. You should go through a process of reflecting on your experiences and really doing some soul searching about why you want to be a physician. Going through this process will aid you later - like in the interview when someone asks you, "Why do you want to be a physician?" you will have given it some serious thought!
It should be passionate and interesting to read. Don't underestimate the edge that a good statement can give you. Students often ask, "Is it really that important?" My answer is, having an excellent personal statement will never hurt your application, but submitting a marginal one might. Are you willing to take that chance?
It should have good descriptive words, and clear explanations not just of the "what," but the "why" and "how" of your experiences. Don't simply tell me that you volunteered at the soup kitchen, because I probably can read that in your AMCAS application elsewhere. Tell me why you did that, what you learned, how that experience has affected you, and how it will affect the way you intend to practice medicine in the future.
For example, don't just write, "I learned patience and compassion volunteering for hospice." That leaves me wondering how you learned it, what that learning process was like, and what experiences you had related to it. Be specific! Example: "Taking an hour to help Mrs. Rodriguez get dressed taught me patience. I had to learn to be present and stop fretting about how long it was taking. She could sense when I was watching the clock and getting antsy. For her, being able to button her shirt was vital to her sense of well being and empowerment in the aging process. It was a small thing, but it meant a lot to her. As I developed my patience, my compassion also grew".
"I have not had one single experience that made me interested in medicine, but rather a culmination of events. Do admissions committees prefer to hear about a defining experience or moment?"
It's up to you. I have seen students incorporate many elements of their motivation for medicine under a larger theme and make it work. Some students have a defining moment that made their goal and desire clear. Like I said, it's an individual journey.
Use a theme that ties your ideas together, and your experiences will be communicated in a more cohesive way. Is there something central about your experiences that ties them together? For example, I had a student write about her experience of navigating a canoe using only the stars. Great analogy for her journey to medicine. She threaded this through her essay incorporating her various influences and experiences.
"More generally, what are admissions committees looking for in applications? What do they prefer not to see?"
In personal statements committees are looking for insight, reflection, analysis, depth of experiences, and uniqueness. They understand that there are really common reasons why folks choose medicine, but they would really like you to focus on what your journey has been like and what medicine means for you. Like I said, make it passionate and interesting to read and you are halfway there. Committees read so many applications that when they find one that is passionate and refreshing, it gets some bonus love!
They do not want to read an elongated version of your résumé that details what you "did." They do not want a summary of your experiences because they already have that in your 15 experiences of the AMCAS application. They also usually don't take too well to hearing you talk about how great you are either. Share your experiences and let those experiences tell us the kind of person you are, the qualities you possess, and your passion for medicine.
"Are there elements that all personal statements should contain?"
All statements should answer the question, "why me, why medicine?" I know this sounds simple, but it's harder than it seems. Most students write all about what they did, and then they end with a loop: "I did all these things because I want to be a doctor, and now I want to be a doctor because I did all these things." The reader is left frustrated because you never really told us why.
All statements should be grammatically correct.
All statements should be interesting to read, which means you should get some objective feedback about your writing. Ask someone who will give it to you straight and let you know if your essay is boring, too self-centered, disorganized, etc. One good method is to tell your reader that if they get bored and start to tune out while reading, just draw a line across the page at that point and give the essay back to you. They can also put question marks by anything that is confusing or doesn't "flow" well.
All statements should answer the prompts given. On secondary applications, many schools ask something specific like "Who is your hero?" If you don't answer the question, it will be a problem. Even if you write beautifully and you write something really poignant and elegant-some committee members will focus on the fact that you didn't answer the question.
A well-written statement with a compelling message can distinguish your application and result in an invitation for an interview. Since your interest in medicine is a result of a culmination of events rather than one single experience, your statement should provide an overview of the events.
In general, if candidates discuss the following questions, they will compose an appropriate personal statement:
Who you are
What your career plans include
Where do you hope to have an impact
When did your interest in medicine develop
How have you demonstrated your interest and commitment to a career in medicine
What makes you a unique candidate