Overcoming Common Pre-Health Personal Statement Obstacles with Journaling

The prompt for the medical school and dental school personal statement is deceptively simple: Why do you want to be a dentist or a doctor? Yet many applicants struggle to answer the question authentically and effectively. A great deal of the consternation applicants experience results from misunderstanding the prompt. The personal statement is not a persuasive essay designed to convince the admissions committee that you really want to pursue medicine or why you will be a great dentist or doctor. It is an opportunity to share how your experiences have shaped you and to give the committee insight into what kind of student and ultimately professional you will be.

Even applicants who understand what the admissions committee is really looking for can find the personal statement difficult to write. Some people are naturally more comfortable and more skilled at introspection, and thus find reflecting about the experiences that have affirmed their desire to pursue medicine easy. However, it is fine if you are not one of those people; you will just need to devote more time and more effort towards constructing a compelling personal statement. For applicants struggling, journaling can help.

Whether you are worried that your experiences might seem too generic or you generally have trouble reflecting on them, journaling as a pre-writing exercise can make the process of writing your personal statement easier. If you are struggling to get started, spend five or ten minutes each day free writing about your experiences at Penn—coursework, clinical volunteering, research, extracurricular activities. Think about how these experiences helped you grow intellectually, emotionally, and professionally. Reflect on moments where you felt moved and motivated or confident and excited about your future profession. Ponder your personal strengths and how they have manifest themselves in your work at Penn. Describe specific experiences vividly and articulate your emotions as clearly as possible in writing. Set a timer and give yourself permission to stop after your time is up. No one will ever see this document (you do not even necessarily need to re-read it yourself to benefit from it), so allow yourself to reflect unselfconsciously. You will be amazed by how much progress you can make and how close you will be to a good topic for the personal statement, with relatively little effort and stress. Starting early and with a low-stakes and low-pressure form of writing may seem silly but for applicants intimidated by the personal statement, it is easier than attempting to craft the essay from scratch. And as always, if you need assistance, feel free to meet with your pre-health advisor by scheduling an appointment.

CS Radio – Episode 39: “Just in Time”

Are you stressed out about your approaching graduation? Does it feel like everybody around you got their job offer ages ago? DON’T PANIC.  Michael and Mylène are here to ease your fears!  We’ve got some solid facts to back it up – plenty of Penn students don’t accept a job offer until March or later!  We’ll go into the details, plus the usual run down of this week’s events – of which there are MANY!



Experience the hiring process from the employer’s (emotional) perspective

Dr. Joseph Barber

In addition to working with graduate students and postdocs here at Penn on their career exploration and development, I also teach an Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare course at Hunter College of the City University of New York as an adjunct professor. Since job searching is a discrete set of human behaviors that can be defined and even measured, I find several topics discussed in my animal behavior course to be relevant when talking about career-related topics with students and postdocs.

One of my lectures in the course focuses on the question of whether other species experience emotional states and whether those states are similar to the ones that we experience. That is a very important question from an animal welfare perspective, because negative subjective emotional states (like fear, pain, frustration, boredom, loneliness) can be a potential source of suffering if they result directly from the way we house or manage these animals in captivity.

There are no easy answers to these questions, because emotions by their very nature are subjective and may well be distinct to the individuals experiencing them. I assume that other human beings feel emotional states in a similar way that I do, but it is almost impossible to show that in any objective fashion. We cannot measure the experiences that we feel, even if we can measure changes in blood flow or nerves firing in parts of the brain. What we are left with, then, are some general questions we must ponder. Here are two examples.

  • Do other species have the same range of emotional states that we do, and do they have some that we don’t experience?
  • How can we try to perceive the environment from the perspectives of those other species when they see, smell, hear and experience the world in such different ways from us?

I bring up the issue of differing perspectives because, in many cases, those types of questions are also important when thinking about employers — and especially hiring managers and recruiters. Yes, I know that they are humans, too (although with the more common use of applicant tracking software, the first entity that looks at your materials could well be a robot of sorts). Hiring managers should experience the world in the same way that you do. But their environment and experiences are very different from yours, and those factors can play a significant role in their emotional and behavioral responses. In any job application and interview process, it’s important to figure out how employers perceive their environment and how they respond to the application materials you send them in these environments. So, let’s look at the questions I listed above from a job perspective.

Do employers have the same range of emotional states that you do, and do they have some that you don’t experience?

In general terms, the same things that would annoy you will annoy employers. If they ask for a résumé and you send them a 10-page CV instead, they will find that annoying. If they ask for a cover letter and writing sample and you don’t send one, then that, too, will cause irritation. I don’t think there are studies that look at this, but I feel sure that chronic irritation will inhibit open-mindedness about your potential as a candidate. Even if employers have become desensitized to people not sending them what they ask for and in the right format, it may not change their behavioral response, which is probably going to be to shift your application to the “no” pile.

But while hiring managers don’t have unique emotional states, they will generally not feel the same levels of insecurity or worry in the job-search process that some job candidates may. After all, they are not the ones being judged. For that reason, you should not let negative emotions sneak into your application materials or your interview answers, as they will be easy for hiring managers to spot. That can happen quite subtly, with an innocent-enough sounding “Although I don’t have all the experience you are asking for, I do have …” statement in a cover letter.

Don’t dwell on the negatives. Find a more optimistic tone. One easy way to do that is simply to remove the first part of the sentence I used as an example above and start with what you can do and will offer that will make you a valuable candidate. You may only ever have 70 percent of what a job ad is asking for in terms of skills and experiences, but that can be enough — especially if you can demonstrate the potential you can bring.

How can you try to perceive the environment from the perspectives of employers when they see, smell, hear and experience the world in such different ways from you?

The first thing to realize is that employers do see the world differently than you do. Your priorities might be to find a job for some of the following reasons: to have enough money to eat and stay warm, to get good health insurance, to be able to work with an interesting group of colleagues, to continue being paid to do the research you love doing, to start on your professional career path, and so on. We all have our own reasons. Employers have their own reasons, too, and they aren’t likely to overlap with many of yours. The main reason they hire someone usually boils down to the fact that they need someone to get a job done effectively, whether that is teaching courses, working with clients, developing new protein-sequencing pathways or managing programs. They don’t care what you will spend your salary on, but they do care about whether you are going to be a worthwhile investment and good to work with.

In other words, they will be more interested in what you can do for them and less interested in what having the job does for you. When asked the question “Why do you want this position?” in an interview, your answer should put less priority on what you might get out of it and more on what you can offer them.

Focus on their needs first, and it will become obvious to them that you want the job because: a) you have the abilities to do it, and b) something from your past experiences has shown you doing something similar, doing it effectively and enjoying doing it.

A common mistake is to spend too much time telling an employer how excited you are by the possibility of working for such an impressive organization as they obviously are. That is information they already have. They want to hear about what you can bring to the role.

Your academic experiences are always going to be important in describing what you as a Ph.D. can bring, but you will need to talk about those experiences in active terms. Avoid comments like, “My academic experiences have given me …” which involves actions happening to you. Instead, consider something like, “I actively sought out opportunities to study X subject with X professor so that I could connect X concept with X reality, and I have used this knowledge in X situation to help me X …” — where the concepts and realities you mention are relevant to the job and the outcome highlights how effective your knowledge and skills truly are. Employers are looking for patterns: if you have used a skill successfully in the past, then you will be likely to do so again in the future. You need to find a way to show them how effective you have been — and that will always be more interesting than just telling them that you can be effective.

Hiring managers are keyed into the abilities, experiences and knowledge that will help them build capacity within their organizations. They are aware of the challenges that they face every day and are looking for the skills they know will be helpful in overcoming these challenges. If you do not know what those challenges are or what skills are helpful, then you may not be highlighting the most relevant experiences from your past.

So how do you see the world from the employer’s perspective? The easiest way is to read the job advertisement really, really carefully. That is where employers list what they need to get done and the types of skills they believe are necessary to do so. And to really see the world from an employer’s perspective, you also have to be able to use their language to describe your experiences. A great question to ask people whom you are meeting for informational interviews is “What are the skills you use on a daily basis that help you to succeed in your role?” That will give you insight into the way the world looks from the employer’s perspective.

And coming back to the idea of emotional states: when you make it easy for employers to see how your experiences qualify you as an excellent candidate do the job they need done (and most people applying for any job won’t do that), then you will make them happy. It is probable that happy employers will more likely see you as a preferred candidate.

So, yes, employers do have emotions, and you will need to make sure that you give some thought to how you can keep their subjective states as positive as possible.

What I learned at Penn that led to a career in Presentation Design

by Amy Singh, COL ’14

Back several years ago when I was a freshman at Penn, I had no clue what I wanted to do after graduation. I was completely ready to pursue my major in Japanese and minor in Fine Arts, but beyond that I didn’t know what my future path would be. I was considering everything from teaching, to translation work to going back to grad school to study Japanese in more depth, but the best answer I could’ve given you at the time would be that I really wanted to do something creative, that allowed me to combine my arts background with my interest in writing. Little did I know I would end up doing exactly that at an international UK-based company called BrightCarbon.

Welcome to the world of presentation design. In the world of niche industries and jobs, this is one that many people don’t realize exists. Ironically, there are tons of people working in marketing, sales and training whose main task is creating presentations for their teams, bosses or clients. People working in these fields may have different backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common, which is that most likely they have limited training when it comes to creating PowerPoint presentations. Because of this, many companies desire assistance with creating compelling, visual presentations, which is where the Presentation Design agency comes in. Part of this assistance is physically creating the slides themselves, but there are other aspects that come into play. For example, there’s also developing presentation messaging (similar to writing a script) to help companies position themselves as industry leaders, sell products, and explain concepts. And the last role at BrightCarbon is the role of Visualization Consultants like myself, which involves taking messaging and coming up with visuals for slides that communicate those messages well. Since this last role is what I am most familiar with, I wanted to dig a little deeper and get into what specific skills I learned at Penn that helped me become a Visualization Consultant, and what skills are useful to build if you are interested in a similar type of position.

The skills I use on a daily basis range from customer relationship management to reading comprehension to writing to more technical and Microsoft Office-related. Because this is a wide range of skills, the relevant classes are also varied, ranging from English to fine arts to business to technology-related. When combined, having some expertise in each of these areas will give you a great basis for working in presentation creation.


The most obvious skill that has helped immensely with my day-to-day is a solid foundation in writing. The type of writing that I use is different from writing a short story in Japanese for example, but nonetheless is related to the type of writing skills you build at Penn. When you learn how to structure arguments for a piece of writing with an introduction, main points and conclusion, you are inadvertently learning how to write an effective presentation. So many sales presentations we see are poorly structured, and follow a ‘We-we-we’ theme, meaning that they focus solely on how great the presenter is, and don’t actually get into what the value is for end users. In addition, more often than not content is disorganized, arguments are repetitive or presentations become too chart-heavy and end up being ineffective. A lot of these issues would be avoided if the messaging adhered to a solid structure, the same way a good story does, which is one of the things I got a solid understanding of between my various college seminar classes I took at Penn.

Reading comprehension

Another really important skill that I use every time I come up with visuals for a slide is analyzing text and thinking critically about what its key messages are. Because the average presentation will have 20 or more slides chock-full with text, going through each slide in detail could end up taking a lot of time. However, by putting into practice some of the methods I used at Penn (for example, breaking down information by highlighting the key sections, and skimming instead of reading) I’ve been able to shorten this time considerably. Being able to pick out key bits of information also helps with developing visuals for slides. Slides that are too information-heavy are not effective because the audience just ends up tuning out the presenter and reading the information on the slides. However, by focusing only on key points, you can create much clearer and effective presentations, that get your messages across to the audience. Many seminar classes in the college give you a taste of this type of reading analysis, which can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of your slides.


As with any job, being business savvy comes in real handy. At Penn, some of the most useful classes for a career in presentation creation would be at Wharton. For example, marketing would come in handy for making sales presentations, since these presentations involve selling products and knowing how to communicate their value to end users. To add onto that, learning how to manage customer relationships is useful and knowing how to figure out what customers want and how to delight them with great customer service can never hurt. In general, learning how to communicate effectively in written and spoken word is crucial to collaborating on a presentation, which is definitely something that you can develop in different Wharton classes.

Graphic design

For people interested in working on presentations, taking a class in digital design can be useful down the road. If your main task is to create tons of PowerPoint slides, knowing how to lay them out, what colors look good together, and how to alter images in Photoshop can be very useful. Most people will say that they don’t have time to learn these types of skills, but if you learn how to do these kinds of things once, you will be able to make huge impact on the quality of slides you create. Introductory design classes at Penn will teach you design foundations which can be used to for things like using images effectively in your presentations, creating engaging PowerPoint templates and laying out your content so that it’s intuitive. This will make your presentations look one-thousand times better and also makes them much more effective. (To learn more about how to do great PowerPoint design, check out this article!)


The last important foundation for making presentations is to get a good handle on your weapon of choice, namely Microsoft PowerPoint. I learned many of the basics from a class I took in high school that focused on learning Microsoft Office, however, by the time I started working in PowerPoint full time there was still a lot more I had to learn. The best methods for learning all there is to know about how to use PowerPoint to its full potential would be to take online classes like BrightCarbon’s PowerPoint Master Classes, which can help you master a lot of the rarely-taught features of PowerPoint. Once you get in the swing of using more of PowerPoint’s functionality, it begins to come to you naturally and you can create more advanced and more effective presentations quicker and more easily.


I never thought I would end up making PowerPoints for a living, but you’d be surprised how many people do just that. These people might have different titles, like ‘brand manager’ or ‘product marketing manager’ or even ‘visualization consultant’, but in the end there are many careers where you may end up creating presentations frequently. Presentation design really is a lesser-known but massive industry with lots of job opportunities for designers and liberal arts graduates in general, and it really is great, as long as you don’t mind staring at PowerPoint for hours at a time. No matter what your degree may be, having a foundation in certain areas, namely writing, reading comprehension, business and design as well as technical skill (or the ability to learn) can take you very far in developing high quality, visually-effective presentations, and will help you shine among others as a presentation master.

Amy Singh is a self-proclaimed PowerPoint wizard and Visualization Consultant at BrightCarbon, an international (UK-based) presentation agency. After graduating from the college in 2014, she now spends most of her days planning her next Disney World vacation and also sharing the joys of PowerPoint with others.

Deadline Friday! Career Services Summer Funding

Deadline: Friday, March 24th
Apply On PennLink, ID#: 837047

Have you identified a really cool summer opportunity but don’t have the financial resources to make it a reality? Many summer internships and summer research opportunities, particularly in certain fields, provide only a small stipend or do not pay at all.  Frequently the internships are located in cities with a high cost of living. This means that many students are unable to take advantage of excellent positions, which are sometimes the first step towards a career in a given field.  Other students wish to participate in not for profit or NGO work abroad, or to do a research project, but the travel costs to get there are prohibitive.

This year, thanks to generous donors, Career Services has a small fund of money to allow returning students to pursue unfunded or under-funded summer opportunities. The funds could cover travel expenses, living expenses, or both.  No award will exceed $3000. For full details, visit our funding page. Curious about other sources of funding at Penn for summer opportunities? Learn more here: http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/SummerFunds