Getting into Medical School

By David Steinhardt

Now that my medical school application process has come to an end, I feel a personal responsibility to share some of the knowledge I’ve gained during the process. Throughout this difficult and humbling year, perhaps the most inspiring aspect of applying to medical school was that I began to feel a connection with everyone else who’s completed or is currently completing the same process. I sent countless emails and had numerous conversations about how to gain an acceptance into a school, and am indebted to the doctors and medical students who took the time to help me. Medicine is not the easiest field to be accepted into, it’s also not the highest paying or the best lifestyle – these characteristics bring doctors together, as is the natural human tendency to come together, mentally and emotionally, when marching through trenches.

Continue reading “Getting into Medical School”

Tales from an Insider: Personal Statement Failures

by Michelle A. Finkel, MD

Imagine this: It’s fifteen years from now, late at night. You’ve completed a long clinical day, had a quick dinner, and now you are ready to relax…

Unfortunately, you can’t: You have twenty personal statements to read by tomorrow. You sit down on the couch, eyeing the documents that will keep you from getting eight hours of sleep, and get to reading. Continue reading “Tales from an Insider: Personal Statement Failures”

Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 2

 

By Joseph Love

This is the conclusion of a two part series.

Using Your Words
The technical aspects of writing an application essay are no different than writing any other essay. Unfortunately, confidence can wane when applying to your top-choice school. If you have an outline and know how to convey your personal information, it’s time to work on finding your voice through the correct use of words. Nervous essayists rely on cliché, generalizations, passivity, and hyperbole or humor. These are the occasional-writer’s default settings because they are easy to hide behind. Continue reading “Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 2”

Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 1

By Joseph Love

Part one of a two part series about how to write a winning personal statement. Come back next week for the second part and more information about how to use your words to sell yourself!

The Doom
Students typically have strong aversions to the personal essay because we’re told to avoid using personal pronouns throughout our entire academic career. Subconsciously, we’ve learned “I”, “My”, “We”, and “Our” are telltale signs of bias, unreliability, and inaccuracy. The aversion isn’t that we actually fear expressing our opinions, but that we simply aren’t comfortable writing about ourselves in memoir form. That’s it. I say this with certainty because most poorly written student essays suffer from the same recurring errors, and when I address students about the issue, the response is overwhelmingly the same: “I didn’t know how else to write it.” Continue reading “Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 1”

Not Another Crayon in the Box: Writing a Successful Personal Statement for Medical School Part 2

By Alex M. Jennings

Part two of a two part series. Part one may be found here.

Personal Narratives

The medical school admissions committee members interviewed in the aforementioned studies offer plenty of advice on what they are looking for in a good PS. Mark Stewart, author of Perfect Personal Statements, offers this advice: “Strive for depth, not breadth. An effective personal statement will focus on one or two specific themes, incidents, or points” (Stewart, 2002). Thus, despite there being five rhetorical moves, you need not use as many personal narratives: keep it short, focused, and poignant. Content is the key.

Judy Colwell, Assistant Director. Of Admissions at Stanford Medical School, said that as far as content, they want applicants to show who they are. She continues: “Some personal statements are so wonderfully written that we’ll get goose bumps or be in tears. Most applicants don’t write so beautifully, of course (Stewart, 2002).” With thoughtful consideration, you should be able to find the right stories to tell. Then, maybe your PS will have as deep an effect on your reader as Colwell says.

One way that you can show who you are is by revealing thoughtful, personal insight. For example, J. Freedman, from StudentDoctor.net, says that he has read hundreds of narratives about healthcare experiences. These can get trite and boring, he says, “yet the good ones still stand out and tell me so much about the applicant’s motivation, character, maturity and insight (Freedman, 2010).” His point is that it is not just what you say, but how you choose to convey your insights—that is what makes all the difference.

There are several ways to add color to the picture you are painting of yourself through your PS. The Carnegie Mellon Health Professions Advisement office offers some good ideas, including:
…using sensory details to help set scenes, like mentioning what the sky looks like, what color a child’s dress is, or how the food smells. This is one way to make sure your reader is right there with you. You can also share your personal emotions and indicate how your surroundings affected you. This will give the reader a better idea of your individualism, and make experiences that may be common seem unique (“Tips for Writing Personal Statements”).

By following these suggestions, you will ensure that you “show, rather than tell”, who you are. There are also several style details of which you need to be aware. One of them has to do with length limitations. Since you only have 4500-5300 characters to work with, depending on where you apply, there is not enough space for a full introduction or conclusions. You should also avoid “hackneyed introductions and conclusion clichés” (Stewart, 2002). In addition, Stewart warns against referring to yourself in the third person (“Alex will make a great physician because he…”), trying to impress with vocabulary or technical jargon, and doing anything gimmicky with fonts, formats, or rhyming schemes (p. 16-19). One reviewer recalls receiving a PS where the text was shaped into a large tear-drop and written in rhyming couplets. Although originality is key, don’t be annoying and overbearing! Doing so will hurt, rather than help your chances of getting an interview.

Conclusion

“Show, don’t tell!” –This trite expression is oft repeated to pre-medical students. While it may be a good piece of advice, it’s something that is easier said than done. Hopefully, with this summary of relevant research, you will see the importance of weaving deep, personal insights into a standard rhetorical framework. Although the medical school application essay prompt is designed to let you freely express yourself, research has shown that the most successful PSs follow these highlighted suggestions.

The biggest task left to you now, as an aspiring future physician, is to think deeply about which experiences have shaped your life the most. You need to dig deep to uncover that poignant experience which fuels your drive to medicine. It’s a hard path you’ve chosen, but only you know why this is right for you. As you consider which stories to tell, make sure not to just tell the reader what you think they want to hear. If you’re wondering about how to tie in your experience as a missionary in Guatemala, your difficulties in overcoming challenges as a minority, or whatever it may be, first ask yourself the following: Is this a part of my identity and reason for pursuing medicine? Remember that what an experience means to you is more important than how impressive it looks to others.

According to Bekins et al. (2004), your audience wants to see “a clear statement of what the applicant had learned from his or her life experiences” (p.60). Introspection and reflection, showing how “life lessons” shaped your thinking or behavior, count more than technical preparation. Even blemishes on your record can help you, if you show what you learned from them (p. 67).

Life is about to become complicated for those of you who are preparing for medical school. You’re studying for the MCAT, securing your letters of recommendation, and filling out your applications—all time consuming, tedious tasks. When you feel overwhelmed, or when you get to work on your PS and can’t think of what to mention, simply pretend you are just writing to a friend about why you want to go into medicine (Harvard University, 2011). If you get stuck or frustrated, just think about how deeply your essay could affect your readers. How much relief will you feel when you get an interview, and you find out it was because of your thoughtful PS? Writing well can be difficult, but with these tips, the keys are now in your hands.

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on September 26, 2012.

References
American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service. (2011). AACOMAS Application Instructions 2012, 13. Retrieved from http://www.aacom.org/Documents/AACOMASInstructions.pdf

American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). (2011). How to apply. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/how_to_apply/.

Barton, E., Ariail, J., & Smith, T. (2004). The professional in the personal: The genre of personal statements in residency applications. Issues in Writing, 15(1), 76-124.

Bekins, L. K., Huckin, T. N., & Kijak, L. (2004). The personal statement in medical school applications: Rhetorical structure in a diverse and unstable context.Issues in Writing,15(1), 56-75.

Corbett, E. P. J. (1990). Classical rhetoric for the modern student. New York: Oxford University Press, 1.
Farmer, J. (2007). Before you write your personal statement, read this. StudentDoctor.net. Retrieved from http://studentdoctor.net/2007/06/before-you-write-your-personal-statement-read-this/

Freedman, J. (2010). Personal statement myths. StudentDoctor.net. Retrieved from http://studentdoctor.net/2010/04/personal-statement-myths/.

Harvard Medical School (HMS). (2011). Class Statistics. Retrieved from http://hms.harvard.edu/admissions/default.asp?page=statistics

Harvard University. (2011). The Medical School Personal Statement. [Powerpoint Presentation]. Retrieved from http://www.ocs.fas.harvard.edu/students/careers/medicine/applicationprocess/ personal_statement_2011.pdf

Huiling D. (2007). Genre analysis of personal statements: Analysis of moves in application essays to medical and dental schools. English for Specific Purposes, 26(3): 368-392.
Jones, S., & Baer, E. A. (2003). Essays that worked for medical school. Westminster, MD: Ballantine Books, 32-34, 40.

Stewart, M. (2002). Perfect personal statements: law, business, medical, graduate school. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s. In order of reference, the following pages were consulted: 112, 8, 111, 105, 16-19
Tips for Writing Personal Statements. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Health Professions Program. Retrieved from http://www.cmu.edu/hpp/achieve/pstips.html

Not Another Crayon in the Box: Writing a Successful Personal Statement for Medical School Part 1

By Alex M. Jennings

Although there are numerous options for writing a personal statement (PS), successful ones incorporate insightful personal narratives into standard rhetorical moves, captivating medical school admissions committees while relaying pertinent information. Every year, competition to get into medical school gets fiercer. As a result, successful applicants have increasingly higher MCAT scores and GPAs, making it harder for individuals to stand out. The application’s PS section is what provides this opportunity. Though it cannot substitute for low scores, it can be a deciding factor in whether or not students are accepted. It is a personal essay, which presents applicants as individuals, future-physicians, and ideal candidates for their medical schools of choice. The most compelling studies and expert opinions indicate that successful PSs tend to follow five major rhetorical steps as they incorporate personal narratives. Following these suggestions will help medical school applicants to secure that much-coveted interview.

You’ve worked hard as an undergraduate, earning a respectable GPA and competitive MCAT scores. Experiences in leadership, community service, research, and physician-shadowing line your resume. Your favorite professors, boss, and director of the local hospital volunteer program have all written you glowing letters of recommendation. Now you want to apply to medical school, and you think you have a good chance of making it into your top choices. Does this sound like you?

Unfortunately, this generic profile describes almost every one of the thousands of applicants to medical school each year. According to their “Class Statistics” webpage, Harvard Medical School’s entering class this year (2011) has an average GPA of 3.8 and composite MCAT score of 36, not to mention a wealth of diverse backgrounds and pre-medical experiences. For a class size of 165, they received over 5,400 applications—a 3% acceptance rate (HMS, 2011). Yet Harvard is hardly alone among the nation’s one hundred and sixty-one MD/DO programs in statistics like these. This begs the question: When standing shoulder to shoulder with the nation’s best and brightest, how do you stand tall enough to be seen? The answer lies within one of the most overlooked areas of the medical school application—the personal statement. This is what makes you stick out, so applications committees can tell you’re “not just another crayon in the box.” Although there are numerous options for writing a PS, successful ones incorporate insightful personal narratives into five standard rhetorical moves, captivating medical school admissions committees while relaying pertinent information.

The Role of the Personal Statement

The PS is unique within professional writing. Though it is a crucial part of medical education, professionals in the field do not write it—only novices do (Bekins et al., 2004). As a result, successful writing instruction is often overlooked by pre-medical courses, so applicants are often lacking in formal instruction on how to write a good PS. Years of science-heavy instruction (the most common background for pre-meds) only exacerbates this problem by limiting writing to research reports and academic analyses.

Unfortunately, the prompt given in the AMCAS application doesn’t offer much more clarification. It reads: “The Essay(s) section is where you will compose your personal comments explaining any pertinent information not included elsewhere in the application.” Other than this vague instruction, the only other criteria given by the application is. “The available space for this essay is 5300 characters (spaces are counted as characters), or approximately one page” (AMCAS, 2011). For the osteopathic (DO) schools application, the character restriction is limited to 4500, including spaces (AACOMAS, 2011). So what kind of “pertinent information” you should share?

The personal statement is your opportunity to show the most “pertinent information” of all: the genuine, diligent, driven, future physician behind all the numbers. “What we can’t tell from grades and scores,” says one admissions committee member, “is whether the applicant will thrive in a medical career. That’s where the PS comes in (Bekins et al., 2004).” This is your chance to show that you are the kind of person who will “thrive in a medical career.” But how?

According to Pat Fero, the director of admissions at the University of Washington, one mistake many applicants make is “discussing their intellectual capabilities as a major factor in being a good candidate for medicine” (Stewart, 2002). The reason why, she gives, is because it is redundant. Your application already contains sections for coursework, test scores, research, community service, etc.—lists that show what you have accomplished. While these experiences may seem unique to you, they demonstrate intellectual capacities shared by the majority of applicants. In contrast, the PS is what brings these somewhat generic statistics to life, giving the evaluators a glimpse into your mind and heart. This is your first chance to show, rather than tell, who you are.

To write a successful PS, follow the style moves suggested by experts, but tailor them to your own experience. Despite following a similar format, PSs reveal individuality by sharing thoughtful, personal insights.The most successful PSs do two things: they follow a standard rhetorical format and use authentic personal narratives.

Standard Rhetorical Format

In order to succeed in any professional career, you must first have a good understanding of rhetoric. This is defined as “the art of discourse…that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations” (Corbett, 1990). In the case of the PS, you are the writer, your audience is the applications committee, and your intent is to get them to extend you an interview. This is where the “rhetorical steps” come in.

The most successful PSs follow five rhetorical steps. These have been observed by several independent researchers, in collaboration with admissions committee evaluators, who analyzed hundreds of PSs looking for rhetorical trends (Jones & Baer, 2003). The five steps are the “hook”, program, background, self-promotion, and projection (Bekins et al., 2004).

As a word of caution, these steps should not form separate paragraphs; rather, they are tools to help you to “inform, persuade, or motivate” your audience (Corbett, 1990). As such, they should be worked into the fabric of your PS without overtly drawing attention to themselves. These five rhetorical moves are the wooden frame supporting the fascinating self-portrait you are painting into the personal essay section.

The first step is called the “hook,” because it is what immediately catches your reader’s attention. “The best essays,” writes expert Juliet Farmer from StudentDoctor.net, “grab the reader’s attention on the first read, and hold it even if it’s the last essay of the day for the reader.” This could be achieved with a quote, story, or anecdote, as long as it is directly applicable to the scope of your essay.

Next comes the “program.” This is where you briefly answer the question, “Why do you want to go to medical school (i.e. this ‘program’)?” In regards to this topic, Fero states: “At [the University of Washington], when the committee members read the AMCAS personal statements they look for motivation–why the individual really wants to go into medicine; what really gave him or her the ‘call’, so to speak” (Stewart, 2002). They know how difficult medical school is, and therefore need assurance that applicants are dedicated in their decision to pursue medicine.

Move three, “background,” is your chance to explain what in your background qualifies you for medical school. Often, writers combine this with other moves, choosing to tell a story which shows their preparation for and drive toward medicine. This is not just a resume listing your achievements; rather, it describes what you gained from your most important life experiences. According to Barton et al. (2004), this typically includes personal narratives of experiences relating to illness, injury, death, medicine, work, sports, hobbies, or travel.

Due to short face time with the applications committee reader, the PS needs to “function as both an essay and an advertisement” (Farmer, 2007). So, after hooking your audience, explaining why you want to join the program, and presenting your background, it is now your time to “advertise”. Self-promotion, in this sense, is where you mention your volunteer work at the homeless shelter, your participation in a vaccination program in India, or other relevant experience with work, school, volunteering, extracurricular activities, or hobbies. Be careful, though, to only briefly include those details which are relevant, and not to waste time or space mentioning interesting but irrelevant experiences. This needs to be meaningful and help your audience connect to you, not just a list of impressive details.

The last of the rhetorical moves is the “projection” move. This is the stage where you outline your career goals, your life aspirations. Where do you see yourself in twenty years? Whether you see yourself pioneering new techniques in heart surgery or making home visits in rural America, you should share this vision. Doing so will reveal to your audience that you have carefully considered your options, and that you have a real goal to become a physician.

These five rhetorical moves give you a framework with which to structure your essay. But yet again, if the most successful PSs use this format, what will make yours stand out? This is where authentic personal narrative come into play.

Come back next week for the second part of the series where the author discusses personal narratives and offers final thoughts about how to write a winning personal statement.

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on September 19, 2012.

References
American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service. (2011). AACOMAS Application Instructions 2012, 13. Retrieved from http://www.aacom.org/Documents/AACOMASInstructions.pdf
American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). (2011). How to apply. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/how_to_apply/.
Barton, E., Ariail, J., & Smith, T. (2004). The professional in the personal: The genre of personal statements in residency applications. Issues in Writing, 15(1), 76-124.
Bekins, L. K., Huckin, T. N., & Kijak, L. (2004). The personal statement in medical school applications: Rhetorical structure in a diverse and unstable context.Issues in Writing,15(1), 56-75.
Corbett, E. P. J. (1990). Classical rhetoric for the modern student. New York: Oxford University Press, 1.
Farmer, J. (2007). Before you write your personal statement, read this. StudentDoctor.net. Retrieved from http://studentdoctor.net/2007/06/before-you-write-your-personal-statement-read-this/
Freedman, J. (2010). Personal statement myths. StudentDoctor.net. Retrieved from http://studentdoctor.net/2010/04/personal-statement-myths/.
Harvard Medical School (HMS). (2011). Class Statistics. Retrieved from http://hms.harvard.edu/admissions/default.asp?page=statistics
Harvard University. (2011). The Medical School Personal Statement. [Powerpoint Presentation]. Retrieved from http://www.ocs.fas.harvard.edu/students/careers/medicine/applicationprocess/ personal_statement_2011.pdf
Huiling D. (2007). Genre analysis of personal statements: Analysis of moves in application essays to medical and dental schools. English for Specific Purposes, 26(3): 368-392.
Jones, S., & Baer, E. A. (2003). Essays that worked for medical school. Westminster, MD: Ballantine Books, 32-34, 40.
Stewart, M. (2002). Perfect personal statements: law, business, medical, graduate school. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s. In order of reference, the following pages were consulted: 112, 8, 111, 105, 16-19
Tips for Writing Personal Statements. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Health Professions Program. Retrieved from http://www.cmu.edu/hpp/achieve/pstips.html

Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 2

By Joseph Love

Using Your Words
The technical aspects of writing an application essay are no different than writing any other essay. Unfortunately, confidence can wane when applying to your top-choice school. If you have an outline and know how to convey your personal information, it’s time to work on finding your voice through the correct use of words. Nervous essayists rely on cliché, generalizations, passivity, and hyperbole or humor. These are the occasional-writer’s default settings because they are easy to hide behind.

A cliché, in terms of essay writing, is a well-known phrase or use of words with no attributable author or source, such as run rampant, no question about it, nerves of steel, and the like. There are thousands of such phrases, and we use them in communication every day. They are so common, they are nearly imperceptible. Again, imagine reading thousands of personal statements. The redundancy of these phrases will begin to suck your life away. The problem is that these are not the words of a conscientious applicant, they are the words of someone who cannot turn a simple original phrase. When working with students, this is where the gloves come off, and where I ruffle lots of feathers. People don’t like hearing that they aren’t original, or that their personal essay isn’t actually personal, but trite or cliché.

However, to avoid them, just read the phrase and ask yourself why you chose it. Simple as that. If you use the phrase runs rampant, odds are you decided to use that phrase because you noticed repetition. There’s your keyword: repetition. So, if we’re discussing Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, we could either say:

Deceit and betrayal run rampant throughout the novel.
or;
Deceit and betrayal, Dostoevsky’s favorite character flaws, are repeated to a point of comic nuisance throughout the novel.

Cliché phrases only harm your writing. Personal stories are received better when they’re 100% personal and your voice is identifiable. If I want to talk about overcoming a hardship, I want to make it meaningful and personal:

I spent several months in rehab after flying off my Harley ass-over-teakettle, setting back my graduation schedule.
or;
My motorcycle accident put me face down in the bottom of a ravine. I dragged most of my weight uphill, my legs useless. While alive, I spent the remainder of the semester in rehab, and as a result my graduation schedule was set back a year.

Generalizations are just as bad as cliché. They occur when a writer assumes one sentiment for an entire population or uses a few opinions to assume unified public opinion:

Everybody knows universal healthcare is the only viable option for the future.
and;
Witnessing the situation in Haiti firsthand, I was overcome with the sadness that the rest of the world feels for that forgotten place.

The truth about generalizations is that some people are adamant about no public options for healthcare and some people don’t care what happens in Haiti. Overlooking these sentiments is quite literally to write with blinders on and to present yourself to admissions officers as oblivious or obtuse. Remember, your essay is about you, not the rest of the world:

As a physician, I would devote my professional career to championing public healthcare.
and;
I assumed my impression of Haiti to be exaggerated, but witnessing the situation as a Red Cross volunteer proved all descriptions understated.

One of the biggest “tells” in an essay is the use of passive-voice rather than active-voice. It’s also the easiest to correct because the difference is visual, but its impact is much deeper. Passive voice turns the object of a sentence into the subject, placing the subject second in the reader’s mind.

My time in Nicaragua was spent wisely, focusing on preservation and community involvement.
or;
I spent my time wisely in Nicaragua, focusing on preservation and community involvement.

In both sentences, time is spent wisely, but in the second example, the speaker, I, acts directly. The grammatical explanation is not very interesting, but the effect on the reader is profound. In the first sentence, my time gives the reader a vague sense of a speaker, and the message they take away is that, while in Nicaragua, someone focused on preservation and community involvement. The second sentence, on the other hand, gives the reader the impression that the writer is a doer and is able to take control of a situation. When a writer says, “I did x,” the reader believes that the writer can do x.

Hyperbole and humor should be avoided in the application essay for multiple reasons. Foremost, you want to portray yourself as direct and sincere, which are the opposite of hyperbole and humor. Additionally, they are difficult to accomplish successfully. Writing, “I have seen a billion tooth extractions,” will raise eyebrows. You’ve seen billions of teeth? It’s doubtful that even a retired dentist has seen billions of teeth, much less billions of tooth extractions. Best to stick with a more concrete description, “I witness, on average, twenty tooth extractions a week.”

Humor, on the other hand, relies on a receptive audience and good timing. In an essay, you have no real control over either. You have no idea who your audience is or what their humor is like, and you especially have no idea if they’ll be receptive to a joke at the exact time they read your essay. While your humor may serve you well in in-person interviews, don’t rely on it to carry your essay.

Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough
The phrase “good enough” should only be used to say, “This essay is good enough to submit.” Unfortunately, this phrase is usually uttered in terms of, “I’ve spent too much time on this essay, it’s good enough.” Giving up on an essay is a certain way to be rejected or overlooked. Utilizing a writing lab or tutor to read and help revise your essay multiple times will polish your essay, making it good enough to submit. Misplaced commas, run-on sentences, misspellings, and improper subject-verb agreement are the most common errors made in any paper at any level of education, and are overlooked by the writer in spite of attentive editing. An accomplished personal statement is the result of careful planning (you’ve allotted enough time to outline, write, edit, and revise), intentional word usage and sentence structure, and allowing your story to be told with clarity and true voice. As a result, you present yourself professionally to your admissions officers, showing that your personality is one that will mesh well with their program, and that you care to purse, nurture, and present your best qualities.

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on June 6, 2013.

Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 1

By Joseph Love

Part one of a two part series about how to write a winning personal statement. Come back next week for the second part and more information about how to use your words to sell yourself!

The Doom
Students typically have strong aversions to the personal essay because we’re told to avoid using personal pronouns throughout our entire academic career. Subconsciously, we’ve learned “I”, “My”, “We”, and “Our” are telltale signs of bias, unreliability, and inaccuracy. The aversion isn’t that we actually fear expressing our opinions, but that we simply aren’t comfortable writing about ourselves in memoir form. That’s it. I say this with certainty because most poorly written student essays suffer from the same recurring errors, and when I address students about the issue, the response is overwhelmingly the same: “I didn’t know how else to write it.”

The Outline
Some schools are polite enough to give strict requirements on essays. They want x-number of words on why this school, x-number on your academic career, and x-number on autobiographical information. These are blessings in disguise, but they must be approached logically. Instead of sitting down and pounding out 200 words and moving on to the next section, consider that every other applicant is doing the same thing, and that the pound-it-out method doesn’t necessarily produce coherent thoughts. You need to know exactly how those words will be allocated. If you have to write 200 words on “Why this school,” divide up that section accordingly. For example, in 200 words, you might spend 50 words on research opportunities provided by a university, 100 words on the specific course of study you plan to pursue, and 50 words on the advantage of their alumni networks. By outlining each section before you write, you will avoid rambling and be able to move on to the next section.

Maybe your school only provides you with an overall word maximum, but still gives you specific areas to talk about. A good rule of thumb is to divide up the total word count between each section, allotting equal space for each topic. If you feel more passionately about one section, feel free to write more, but don’t do it at the total expense of another. To solve this, you can also create a mandatory word-minimum per topic. By breaking these sections down as discussed above, you’ll be able to give a sense of coherence and completion to the essay.

While the essay is an opportunity for you to tell a school all about yourself, it’s also an opportunity for the school to evaluate how you think (not necessarily judge who you are). Doctors are smart people, but they are organized, methodical people who can address subjects directly, logically, and completely. Some smart people simply don’t come across as observably organized or methodical, and their writing reflects this. When deciding between two candidates for a program spot, a medical college’s best investment in resources is the candidate who promises the most in return. This person is disciplined, conscientious, organized, and clear-thinking. If the structure of you essay doesn’t say this about you, it’s a good bet you won’t be considered the better-qualified candidate. Taking the time to map out your essay is a major step in standing out amongst your competition.

It’s All About You
The application essay is not the time to be humble. Medical schools want qualified applicants, for sure, but they also want confident applicants. Your transcript will show your academic proficiency (and if it doesn’t, the essay is the perfect opportunity to explain why), so your essay needs to be about your ambition, your philosophy, and your talents. That said, show maturity in your self-image. Acknowledge your accomplishments and shortcomings, your advantages and disadvantages, but keep it in perspective. For example, if you conduct undergraduate research in a lab setting, by all means say so, explaining briefly what your research is (in lay terms), how often you do it, and why you decided to do it. Your audience will determine if your time investment and the research is impressive and meaningful.

Relaying personal information in a useful way is the most difficult part of writing an essay. The way this information is written will tell your audience how you deal with stress, how you view yourself, and how you identify with others. If you come from a disadvantaged background or are a minority, the most important information that a reader should take away from your personal story is that you are strong-willed and determined to overcome your particular challenges. Bitterness, self-pity, self-loathing, or casting blame are turn-offs regardless of background. If your life has been absolute hell, explain how you got to where you are. The story of overcoming, of doing in spite of, tells the audience exactly how mentally tough you are. However, don’t play up a disadvantage if it hasn’t actually caused you hardship. If you’re invited for an interview, it is much easier to back up a truthful claim than attempt to elaborate a false one on the spot.

If you’re a student with good grades and a relatively unburdened life, you may think your personal story isn’t all that interesting, or worse, you may come across as naïve or unaffected by the struggles of others. This is the reason medical schools look for students who volunteer, shadow physicians, and are involved in extra-curricular activities. Being a member of your community means interacting with other members of your community. In other words, you don’t isolate yourself and have the ability to work with people outside of your social group. If you aren’t getting out of the house, you aren’t expanding your worldview, so get out there and gain experience. Then, write about it.

Imagine the work of the admissions committee, reading thousands of essays from all sorts of backgrounds. That said, the background itself is less important than the person that background has created, and medical schools want students who are community centered, world-wise, and driven. You are all these things, and now you know how to get it across.

Remember to return next week for the second part!

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on June 4, 2013.

 

Tales from an Insider: Personal Statement Failures


By Michelle A. Finkel, MD

Imagine this: It’s fifteen years from now, late at night. You’ve completed a long clinical day, had a quick dinner, and now you are ready to relax…

Unfortunately, you can’t: You have twenty personal statements to read by tomorrow. You sit down on the couch, eyeing the documents that will keep you from getting eight hours of sleep, and get to reading.

This scenario describes me several years ago when I was a Harvard Medical School faculty member and the Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency Program’s Assistant Director. Did I resent the essays? No. Was I desperate to have them grab my attention and keep me from snoring? Absolutely.

So, what pitfalls can you avoid so that your statement is more asset than liability, convincing the reader to invite you for an interview? There are several, so let me review them below to help you avert an essay disaster:

All stuff, no fluff.

I have always wanted to be a doctor because I love people and want to help them.

Being an internist has been my life dream because, through the field, I can make the world a better place.

My passion for surgery is greater than can be imagined. I want to heal with my hands.

One of the biggest turn offs for an admissions reader is flowery, empty language. Even novice readers can easily smell beauty pageant writing.

Your essay should be a persuasive document. Your role is to convince medical schools or residencies that you deserve a slot at their institutions. The best way to persuade is with facts, just like a lawyer does when s/he is trying a case in front of a judge. Saying you love people or want to make the world a better place is not convincing, and it doesn’t distinguish you from the scores of other applicants the reader may be assessing. You need to prove your value and your distinctiveness with your academic, clinical, research, community service, leadership, international, and teaching achievements.

If there is a sentence in your personal statement that could have been written by someone else (especially Miss America), it is not worth the space on the page.

The pneumonia that, thankfully, didn’t kill your grandma might still kill your application.

The gentle and prompt treatment Grandma got from the emergency physician made me realize I wanted to be a doctor too.

The cardiologist was so skilled, I committed myself to becoming an internist just like her.

Some candidates devote a significant portion of their medical school or ERAS® essays to describing a universal experience that initially piqued their interest in medicine or a particular specialty. I mean no disrespect to anyone’s ill family member (sadly, we have all had them), but writing about your personal experience with the medical field is overused, and it may bore your admissions reader. Just because your sentiment is genuine, it is unlikely to be compelling reading or a strategic means to distinguish you from the hundreds of other applicants whose personal statements share the same themes. In other words, the medical staff who impressed you so much when they were caring for your loved one does not reflect anything about your qualifications.

There are exceptions to this rule: If you can swiftly move from a brief personal medical story to your research on a related topic you may be able to pull the personal medical anecdote off. For example, if an applicant had a family member with autism and was consequently motivated to do NIH research on the disease, the personal medical story might be a means to introduce her research and associated publications. (This is a rare scenario.)

You’re the Inspiration: Why syrupy 80’s song titles make bad essay themes.

I learned so much from a frail, 60-year old woman who presented to the clinic with abdominal pain…. After the doctor gave her the diagnosis, she held my hand and we sat together while I comforted her, this former stranger who was now my friend.

A slightly different but related tactic is writing about moving patient stories. Most medical school and all residency applicants have patient vignettes to share, which means that a patient story does not distinguish an applicant from the masses of other candidates. The only caveat to this rule is the writer who can pull off a very concise patient story that then segues into her associated accomplishments, supporting a specific strength in her application. Writing about a patient you saw while volunteering at a Mother Teresa Missionary of Charity clinic could be powerful if it highlights your international community service work and transitions into your masters in public health and tropic disease research. (Again, a rare scenario.)

Childhood dreams may charm Aunt Mabel, but she’s not on the admissions committee.

As a three-year old, I dressed in scrubs for Halloween; I have always wanted to be a doctor.

I loved my doctor so much as a child, I knew that some day I, too, wanted to be a pediatrician.

Talking about your long-standing, childhood desire to be a transplant surgeon rarely works. First, the tactic is (perhaps surprisingly) overused. I’ve read countless essays about the doctor Halloween costume. Also – and you’ll start to see a theme here – these stories do not engage your reader nor further your candidacy. So, you’ve wanted to study germs since you were a kid? How does that support your being a great contributor to a medical institution or a future leader in your field? It doesn’t, which is why admissions readers have no interest in hearing about it.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Go back to that image of you – as a faculty member – facing twenty personal statements before you can get some zzzs. Really, the last thing you need is a verbose essay, droning on and on.

Applicants ask me if they should use every character allowable for their medical school and residency personal statements. There’s an easy answer: No.

Quantity is rarely quality, and in medical essay writing that is especially true. When approaching your personal statement, use two techniques to keep your writing tight. First, limit your essay to a page, no matter what. You will be surprised how this tactic will keep your essay from meandering and put your reader in a good mood. Second, imagine AMCAS® or ERAS® is charging you $10 for each word you write. How can you save a few bucks? Cut to keep you writing sharp. If you do a good job, you can still produce substantive, nuanced, and persuasive prose.

You only have one chance to ruin a first impression.

Readers do not like being confused, and you can’t blame them. Some medical school and residency applicants make the mistake of subtly referring to their crowning, distinguishing accomplishment without fleshing it out. Different faculty members will approach the application in different ways, so – to get “full credit” for your accomplishments – you need to assume that your reader is seeing your essay first, independent of your AMCAS® or ERAS® activities.

Ensure your personal statement can stand alone and doesn’t rely on your AMCAS® or ERAS® activities’ section for clarification.

So now, go back to that image of you as a faculty member in fifteen years. You’ve read the twenty essays assigned to you, you’ve weeded out the empty, trite, verbose ones, and you’ve honed in on the ones chocked full of substance. Keep that image in mind as you write your essay, and think carefully how you can work toward writing that wake-up essay among the crowd of soporifics.

Dr. Finkel, formerly an Assistant Residency Director and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, founded Insider Medical Admissions to level the admissions playing field by offering elite advising services for residency, medical school, fellowship, post-baccalaureate, and dental schools applicants. Check out Dr. Finkel’s under-one-minute, stop motion Guru on the Go© videos on her Youtube site and join her on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on March 12, 2013.

The Application as a Story

By Eric Rafla-Yuan

All medical schools in the United States are looking for students who display six basic core competencies. The competencies numbered one through four are nearly always required for admission, while competencies five and six are more heavily preferred by schools which place high emphasis on research and leadership. These can be roughly approximated by utilizing the US News & World Report Medical School Research rankings.

1) The academic and intellectual capacity to succeed in the intense medical school curricula as well as pass the boards
2) An understanding of the physician-patient relationship and the physician’s role in healthcare delivery
3) The ability to communicate warmly and effectively, especially with those who might be different from yourself
4) To be of good moral character
5) An understanding of the process of hypothesis-driven research
6) An aptitude for leadership and innovation

Once you know what medical schools are looking for, you can tailor your application to best display to admissions the qualities they are looking for. Unfortunately, and nearly all the time to their disadvantage, a large number of pre-medical students have taken it upon themselves to believe that the most effective way to demonstrate these core competencies is by following a checklist of sorts. This has led to the advent of a massive horde of applicants who all appear nearly identical on paper. This is especially disadvantageous if you don’t have an eye-catching GPA and MCAT score.

Don’t let this be you!
GPA: 3.4-3.7
MCAT: 29-33
2 semesters research with poster presentation at home institution
2 semesters hospital volunteer
1 semester homeless shelter volunteer
Member of pre-med club
Generic, bullet point descriptions of the above activities

Every person who applies to medical is unique and has their own story of who they are how it came to be that they are applying to medical school. It is unfortunate then, that many applicants to medical school feel the need to reduce themselves on paper to a simple collection of accomplishments. Medical schools are not looking to invite accomplishments to interviews and eventual acceptances—they are looking for people: people who struggled and overcame, people with strong interpersonal connections to others, people who succeed—but most importantly—real people with real stories.

One of the best places to tell your story is in the 15 slots designated on the AMCAS primary for “Work and Activities”. Don’t just list simplified activity descriptions. Instead, in addition to a brief description, utilize the space to describe your motivations for pursing the extracurricular activity, what you experienced, what you have learned, and how you have grown as an individual from your experiences. Remember, admissions committees will have most likely seen many, many applicants with similar experiences. They are not really interested in how many forms you filed, how many days you spent pipetting in a lab, or how many different majors and minors you have. What is more important is why/how and what you have taken away from your experiences.

To get a huge head start on application writing, make sure you realize that the whole point of the primary application (and often secondaries as well) is for the admissions committee to get a feel for you as a person. It is incredibly hard to understand someone as an individual without meeting or talking to them first, so extracurricular activities and accomplishments are used as a proxy from which admissions committees can draw out your motivations, character, and potential. Make it easy for them. None of these things can be gleaned from your application if you just list basic activity descriptions.

For example, let’s say you transferred from a small state school with limited research opportunities to a large research institution halfway through your college career. Instead of just describing the transfer as a “challenge you overcame”, give it meaning and let it be an insight to the reader to your motivations.

Imagine if you then go on in the next section to describe the cutting-edge research you were able to conduct after transferring, and in the next section, your continuation of the project and results into an honors thesis, which you then possibly are able to submit for publication. Your personal statement then describes and supports one of your main goals as “pushing the frontier of human knowledge.” From this method of description, anybody reading your application can easily follow your motivations and growth as an individual, and gives them a much better idea of you as a person. Your application could just be a collection of scattered pieces, but will be so much stronger if you expand and link them together. This gives the admissions committee a much more complete picture of you as a mature and motivated individual who not only has goals, but follows them through.

What themes are present in your life? Leadership, service to others, experiences with diverse populations, exploration and discovery, or anything else that you feel is important and so have devoted time and energy towards. From the repeated inclusion of activities describing your consistent desire and ability to serve others in multiple capacities, admissions committees will realize that you have a real and heartfelt desire to serve others. If you simply state somewhere that you want to help others, but don’t back it up with the rest of your application, the people who read your application will doubt the sincerity of that statement.

Compare these two applications. Each did three semesters of community service helping disabled children but wrote different activity descriptions. Which person do you feel has a real desire to serve others? Which is simply “checking boxes” for the application? Which would you invite to interview?

1) Gives a bullet point list of responsibilities, and ends description by saying:
“Because I really find serving others fulfilling, I’m glad I was able to find this opportunity in my community to help others.

2) Describes past involvement in swimming in high school, and how they were able to use their swimming expertise to design swimming lessons for disabled children. Also has letter of recommendation from aquatics director testifying to the independence and interpersonal strength shown in communicating and interacting with disabled children and their families. Ends description by saying:
“This opportunity has not only allowed me to serve others, but has also given me the chance to grow as an individual. From my experience here, I have seen that life is not only more complicated for those with disabilities themselves, but can also be very difficult for those families and individuals who must care for them. I now know that taking care of others requires a carefully coordinated group effort, an understanding I know will aid me in becoming a more successful physician.”

Really, we have no way of knowing which of the above individuals is more committed to serving their fellow humans. However, it is pretty easy to pick out which description gives a sense of a mature and motivated individual and which does not. It doesn’t matter how amazing you are, the admissions committee will only know what you tell them. Make it easy for them to understand what kind of person you are by imbuing all the parts of your application with all the things that make you, you. Are you a kind person that shines when working with others? Make sure they understand this easily from your descriptions. Are you an effective and strategic leader? Make sure the reader knows this from your writings. Choose carefully, because in this process, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done—what really matters is what you can show them through your application.

Writing your application is one of the few parts of this process which you have full control over. You get to decide exactly what gets put down, so make sure to use it to your advantage. Unfortunately, many people do not take advantage of the chance to present their application as a whole as best they can. Their work and activities sections, along with the essays and letters of recommendation, don’t build upon each other to best present a complete and compelling picture of themselves. Instead the essays and extracurricular descriptions are scattered and disconnected from each other, and read like a list indiscernible from many other applicants The key then, when there are so many applicants that are otherwise so similar, is to utilize your control over what you write and make yourself stand out to score those interviews!

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on July 18, 2012.