Advice on Writing an Effective Personal Statement for Medical/Dental School

Mia Carpiniello, Associate Director

Within the next few months, medical and dental school applicants around the country will draft, revise, and ultimately submit their personal statement to admissions committees. So, I thought it would be helpful to re-post my blog post from 2014 with tips on writing an effective personal statement for professional school. Although drafting a personal statement can feel like an intimidating and time-consuming task, please remember that this is also an exciting opportunity to convey who you are as a person, in your own voice. So, dig deep and take your time to compose an essay that accurately illustrates your personal attributes.

The personal statement can be the most daunting part of an application to professional school. What do I write about? How do I eloquently convey my thoughts? How can I possibly stay within the stated space limit? Here are 4 quick tips to help you make the most of this opportunity to share yourself with the admissions committee.

  1. Be self-reflective and introspective. What insights have you learned about yourself through a particular experience? Share one or two of your personal qualities, abilities, or characteristics by focusing on a meaningful experience you had. Do not simply restate your resume in narrative form or summarize all of your college experiences. Rather, convey something about yourself beyond your test scores, transcript, and resume. Use your personal statement to tell the admissions committee something about yourself that they cannot glean from the rest of your application, such as your compassion, determination, or meticulousness.
  2. Be concise and straightforward. Admissions officers will be reading thousands of these essays. They won’t have the patience for rhetorical flourishes. The introductory sentence and paragraph are the most important parts; use them to grab the reader’s attention and create a good first impression.
  3. Keep it positive. A personal statement is usually not the place to explain a weakness in your application, such as a low grade or test score. Save that for the secondary application (for medical school applicants) or a brief addendum.
  4. Proof-read! Again. And Again. And then have someone else read it and give you feedback. Ask that person what your personal statement says about you. Is that the impression you want to make? Finally, be sure to follow character or length limits to demonstrate that you can follow directions.

We in the pre-professional team here in Career Services are happy to help you reflect on your experiences and provide you with feedback on your draft. We also offer Personal Statement Workshops; you can find the dates and times on the Career Services calendar.

Are you Competent? Personal Qualities Medical Schools Seek in Applicants

Those of you who despair that medical school admissions is too heavily driven by “numbers” may welcome the AAMC’s work towards identifying personal qualities necessary for medical school and practice while finding ways to recognize them in the admissions process.  The expanded use of the MMI format for medical school interviews also reflects this trend drive to find out more about the person behind the application.  As modern medicine and training change, medical students lacking particular personal characteristics are perceived as less able to learn, find job satisfaction, and deliver quality care.

It isn’t surprising that integrity and ethics, as they have always been, are absolutely necessary.  The ability to respect privacy, follow rules, and tell the truth — consistently — is required.

More intriguing are the qualities that are necessary to deal with challenges in life and shortcomings in oneself.  You may feel like you have to be the perfect person and student to get into medical school, but medical educators know that how you handle disappointment and problems shows your mettle.  Are you flexible and resilient in the face of stress and change, or do you melt down or become angry or rigid.  Do you know how to seek help and find ways to improve your areas of weakness, or do you avoid them or  blame others?

How do you relate to others?  Do you have experience relating to people from different backgrounds and do so effectively and respectfully?  Can you work as a team member as well as independently?  Do you express yourself well verbally while listening to others with empathy and respect?

Are you reliable?  Do you show up to work in lab or volunteer when scheduled, even when you may not feel like it?  Do you manage your activities so that you are able to fulfill your commitments rather than overextend yourself or become ineffective?

Do you want to spend the rest of your life serving others and learning new things?  Most medical school applicants do, however some say they do and some show that they do.  Medical schools are more convinced by demonstrated service to others and intellectual curiosity than assertions that one values these pursuits.

Every day presents you with opportunities to reflect upon and develop these personal characteristics.  They are essential to your personal and professional success in medical school and beyond.  If you are person who likes a plan and is a little bit of a perfectionist, think about the way you deal with unpredictability and disappointment.  Could you develop your flexibility by trying a new activity or learning something outside of your usual areas of interest?  Are you hanging around with the same people all the time? If so, perhaps you could spend time off campus, volunteering in the community.  Taking some chances and trying new things is an excellent way to grow and develop the qualities you need for your medical training and career.

Don’t…Don’t…Don’t Believe the Pre-health Hype

I’m sitting in my office listening to a student and, after a brief pause,  am asked, “Um…I heard…are you applying to medical school this year?”  My response, as I recall, was something along the lines of, “[sputter, sputter, pick eyeballs up off floor] Who ME?  NO!  Good heavens, NO!”  The student, looking relieved and reassured, mentioned, “Well, I heard that…it didn’t seem right.”

Later in the afternoon, it occurred to me why someone may have thought I was making a major career change.  We had used my name as a “Jane Doe”-type place marker in a sample AMCAS application during a workshop.  I think a joke was even made at the time about my “application.”  But at least one person didn’t see the humor, which is perhaps understandable at the end of a busy semester.  It called to mind, though, the many times I’ve clarified other pre-health “rumors” in my office (as well as memories of hype man Flavor Flav, c. 1988).  For example:

“I heard you can go to medical school without taking science courses.”

“I heard that Penn Med doesn’t like to accept Penn students.”

“I heard you have to take the MCAT right after your sophomore year.”

“I heard that admissions is really only about your MCAT and grades.”

Admission to graduate school in the health professions is so competitive and the process so fraught with uncertainty, detailed information, and waiting, that it’s natural for people to talk.  To commiserate.  To worry.  To, er, suspend disbelief.

Gathering information is a vital part of pursuing a career in the health professions and going through the application process with confidence.  Be mindful, however, of the source of your information and consider whether it can be checked against another or more reliable source.   An internet forum for applicants can be a source of support and insight, but it can also be a breeding ground for false statements.  A family friend’s thoughts about admissions can be invaluable or, possibly, a little out of date.  A story about someone who surprisingly had ten interviews, or none at all, might say little about admissions in general or your particular application.  In fact, it may not be true.

Whether you’re starting out on your pre-health path or waiting for those secondary applications to arrive this summer, keep in mind that if something doesn’t sound right, it may not be correct.  Check your information.  Of course, your pre-health advisers are happy to point you to resources or share their perspective on those questions that don’t always have a right or wrong answer.  That is, if we aren’t busy filling out our own secondaries (don’t you believe it!).