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. Continue reading “The Application as a Story”

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”

Reflections on the Medical Admissions Process

By Alex Cole

Each year on the SDN forums as the summer rolls around, there is always a flurry of threads asking for advice on the various aspects of the application cycle. For the first-time applicant the application process is at once exciting and nerve-wracking, caused by uncertainty in what to expect and the inherently unguided nature of the process combined with the much-anticipated arrival of this moment.

The application to medical school is perhaps the first time that applicants are given a more or less blank slate on which to express themselves and told to go at it with very few guidelines. I will leave it to the reader to peruse SDN, particularly the forums, and find information on the particulars and mechanics of the application process (check out the 2014-2015 Applicant Sticky for links to relevant threads, some of which are included below). Instead, I want to offer here a few tidbits of general advice to applicants that are embarking on this year’s application cycle.

Last year I had the great fortune to interview at a wide gamut of institutions – from state schools to the world’s most reputable institutions – and I did a lot of reflecting on my experiences as a medical school applicant both while the process was in full swing and after I made my final decision. My goal is to provide insight into the process to quell some of the fears that arise from uncertainty about what to expect and offer some pointers that, I hope, will help you throughout the upcoming year.

Before You Submit Your Application

Reread, reread, and reread your AMCAS application some more

Make sure all of the information is entered correctly and check for spelling and grammar mistakes multiple times. I developed the habit of reading my entire application at the end of every day I worked on it; I read my application in its entirety more than ten times before I submitted it. In addition to minimizing writing mistakes, this will also make you very familiar with what you wrote in your application, which will be important for interviews.  Ideally, you should also have someone who knows you well, and someone who does not, review your application.

Relevant thread: 

Completing the AMCAS application is a thought-intensive process

I’m skeptical of anyone that is able to complete the application in a day or two. Every question is an opportunity to reveal more about yourself, and considering that the AMCAS application and any secondary applications will be all that the admissions committee bases interview decisions on, both (but especially the primary) should be treated extremely seriously. Don’t write your personal statement or complete the activities and experiences sections haphazardly – make sure you take advantage of the opportunities to share your personal motivations and interests and why medicine is the field for you.

Don’t rush any part of the application

Contrary to most SDN advice, you don’t need to submit the application within the first few days of June in order to be “on time.” While the time required for applications to be verified does get much longer quickly, you won’t be receiving any secondaries until mid-to-late July unless AMCAS and schools change how they do things significantly. Don’t compromise the integrity of your application for the sake of submitting on the first day possible. Taking a few days to intensively review your application and make necessary changes will yield many more benefits than submitting the application on the first day possible without reviewing and editing.

Make sure to fully explain activities and experiences on the application

Unless it’s patently obvious what was involved in a particular activity (shadowing experiences probably don’t need to be elaborated, for example), the admissions committee members reading your application may or may not know what you did or what was involved even though it might be obvious to you. Remember that the people reading your application have no idea who you are; you have to make sure you review your application with that mindset. The only things they’re going to know about you are what you disclose in your application. Everything from your personal statement to your activity descriptions should speak to your character and your motivation to become a physician. This is, in my opinion, the most important purpose of the AMCAS application and is a goal you should strive for when answering each question or completing each section.

Be deliberate about the applications you submit

Every year I hear stories about an applicant being forced to matriculate at a school he/she really doesn’t want to because he/she wasn’t accepted to any other institutions. Why even apply to that school to begin with? Worse, many applicants are left without an acceptance because they didn’t create a realistic list of schools based on the quality of their application.

An applicant’s final list of schools should not be a random selection of institutions. Instead, the final list should be carefully chosen to reflect the overall strength of the applicant’s application and his/her personal preferences. An applicant with a 3.3 GPA and 30 MCAT, for example, likely shouldn’t be applying only to the Harvard/Yale/Hopkins tier of schools. On the other hand, an applicant with a 4.0 GPA and 39+ MCAT should feel comfortable going with a few reach schools unless he/she absolutely wouldn’t want to attend them.  I’d recommend that you set up a three-tier classification scheme: schools which you have a good chance of getting into (“safeties”), schools where you have a shot (“competitive”), and “reach” schools where an acceptance is possible but unlikely.

Use the AAMC’s Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) to compose your list. This is the selection process I used and I was left with a list of schools at which I was fairly competitive (as evidenced by being invited to interview at 13 of the 16 schools at which I fully completed applications).

  1. Flag all schools in the MSAR at which your numbers are competitive. I would define “competitive” as being within two standard deviations of the mean or above using the GPA/MCAT ranges provided for each school. This, of course, is assuming that the rest of your application has no glaring weaknesses.
  2. If you feel comfortable doing so, flag a few reach schools. I would define “reach” schools as either schools that are notoriously competitive, which includes most of the top 20 schools in popular rankings schemes, or schools at which your numbers are well below the mean.
  3. Eliminate any schools that aren’t out-of-state friendly if you’re classified as an out-of-state applicant for that school.
  4. Eliminate any schools in locations that you absolutely wouldn’t want to be.
  5. If you need to cut your list down further, do research on the schools using their websites. I would recommend looking at information on dual-degree programs (if that is a route you might be interested in pursuing), the curriculum, the grading system, and any unique programs/opportunities they might have for their students.

While the final number of schools an applicant chooses to apply to should be based on a variety of factors, including the overall strength of their application, I would aim to apply to no more than twenty schools if possible. Even with that many schools the application process begins to become prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

Relevant forum: What are my chances?

Get ready for a long year with lots and lots of waiting

I submitted my application on June 2nd, 2010 and didn’t finalize my school decision until April 18th, 2011. I started working on my application in May, so it took almost a complete year from when I started the cycle to when it was finally done. There is no other way to describe this process other than to say that it can be miserable. That said, it can also be an exciting and fun time of your life. When else will you be able to travel the country and meet some of the best students, clinicians, and scientists in the world? Though I know that it’s much more easily said than done, try and be patient and enjoy the experience. To use a cliché, “stop and smell the roses.”

Be humble

The most important piece of advice I can give is to be humble.  Don’t go into this process with any expectations. Again, there are a myriad of people who come to the SDN forums and are angry because they didn’t get into their first choice school and they don’t know why, they didn’t get into any school and they don’t know why, they didn’t get a scholarship and they don’t know why, and so on.

One glance at the number of applicants, number of interviews granted, and ultimate number of acceptances awarded should provide a reality check. Most schools accept less than 10% of their applicants each year; the most competitive institutions have acceptance rates less than 5%. Even the interviewing numbers are daunting: most schools only interview about 20% of their applicants and then only accept 10-50% of that group!

The unfortunate truth is that you aren’t guaranteed a medical school acceptance, even for those applicants that have particularly strong applications. Overall, about half of all applicants are accepted somewhere, but if you go into this process expecting to get into a top institution with a full tuition scholarship, you’re more than likely going to be in for a rude awakening and will be very disappointed. This process will humble you like no other. Once you get that initial acceptance, anything else is just icing to make the cake sweeter. Midway through the process your ego will be beat up, you will feel unaccomplished and subpar, and you will feel unworthy of getting into medical school. I think this is a feeling most people have, so don’t worry if you feel that way. It’s better to feel like that than like you’re unstoppable and will get into every school you apply to. The latter will certainly leave you disappointed; the former will leave you excited and grateful for what you accomplish.

Completing Secondary Applications

Secondary applications that contain essays must be treated seriously

I’ve met many applicants that discount the importance of secondaries, and while that might be fine at some schools that simply require a rehash of your AMCAS information, be particularly careful about applications that ask some form of the question, “why us?” This question is extremely important, and a well-crafted answer might very well be the difference between getting and not getting an interview. It’s fine to reuse essays in applications, but make sure the essay you’re reusing directly answers the question being asked. Don’t try and shortcut the essay by using an answer that tangentially addresses the question. I was never able to recycle essays without any sort of editing, and if nothing else different length requirements will cause you to cut parts of your essays.

Once secondaries start arriving, you can find the secondary prompts for many schools on the forums, which will enable you to prepare to complete your secondaries.

Be prompt but don’t rush

Be prompt with your secondaries, but as was said with the AMCAS application, quality should not be sacrificed for a quick turnaround.  As an example, it took me a month to turn in my Pritzker secondary – significantly longer than what I took for any other school and breaking the “two-week” rule – and I was still accepted and will ultimately be attending school in Chicago. While some schools might gauge interest by how quickly you return the secondary, a poorly completed but quickly returned secondary will get the applicant nowhere. Secondaries that simply require a payment or confirmation of demographic information, however, should be completed immediately if possible.

Be particularly kind to the admissions staff when calling about the status of your application

In fact, as a courtesy I wouldn’t even call about the status of your application before being invited to interview. If every applicant to a school called the office and spent 30 seconds asking what the status of his/her application was, the office would literally spend full days in the aggregate responding to those inane calls. Call if you have something legitimate to ask about, but calling and asking about your application in an attempt to express interest is just silly. Also keep in mind that admissions offices are sorely understaffed for the amount of work they do. If they don’t get back to you right away or are terse with you on the phone, be gracious and thankful and try not to be bothered by it. If you dealt with thousands of neurotic pre-meds year after year, I’m sure you would be a bit frayed, too.

Attending Interviews

First, CELEBRATE!

I remember getting my first interview invite, and though it was to a school that ended up being my last choice, I was still extremely excited. Your first interview invite serves as validation that your work has paid off and that your application was successfully completed and well done.

Book Your Interview

After you’re done celebrating, make sure you book your interview date (if the school allows you to choose dates) as soon as possible, especially at rolling schools. Those dates will fill up quickly early on in the cycle. If you’re still in school, you’re going to have to miss class. Class, in my opinion, isn’t an excuse for choosing a later interview date over an earlier one, especially if the difference in interview dates is several weeks. As long as you’re accepted by the end of the cycle and don’t fail any courses, you’re going to be the only person that cares about your senior grades. This is obviously professor-dependent, but I found that all of my professors were more than willing to reschedule exams, assignments, etc. for my interviews. As long as you keep the lines of communication open you shouldn’t have any problems.

I highly recommend taking advantage of student hosting programs if they’re available at the institutions you’re interviewing at. Staying with students significantly reduces the cost of attending an interview and gives you the opportunity to talk with a student about the institution, which will give you plenty of ammunition for questions and a unique “in the field” view of the school. If a school doesn’t provide you with any information about a hosting program in the interview invitation or on its admissions website, send the admissions office an e-mail asking for information on student hosts. For whatever reason, some schools don’t provide information about student hosts unless asked. Don’t expect your host to show you around the school or the surrounding area; like you, they are students and are likely very busy.

Relevant thread: Etiquette when staying with student hosts

Get Prepped

Check out the SDN Interview Feedback database for the institution, particularly paying attention to questions that previous students were asked and what the interview day is like.

Men, make sure you have a decent suit. Buy one if you need to – it’s worth the investment to have a quality suit that fits well. Take the time to get measured and make sure you get a suit that you feel comfortable in. While a suit alone won’t get you accepted or rejected, you absolutely must look professional. Your personal appearance comprises a significant portion of what an interviewer will think about you when he/she first sees you.

Relevant thread: Men’s Interview Clothing #2

Women, the key word for you is “professional.” Before I started attending interviews I thought this would go without saying, but try and keep the cleavage and extremely short skirts at home. You would be surprised at what some people consider to be “professional.” I’d also recommend bringing a pair of flats for the walking tours; most schools are fine with you leaving the professional façade for the sake of comfort, but if you’re concerned about whether or not this would be acceptable I would call or e-mail the admissions office prior to your interview.

Relevant thread: Women’s Interview Clothing #2

Re-read your application the night before

One thing that I didn’t do but wish that I did was reread my application, especially secondaries, the night before each interview. Your overall application – of which your interview is a part – should tell a story, and rereading what you wrote in your applications can help keep that story cohesive. In a majority of my interviews, I – rather than the interviewer – directed the conversation, so you are usually able to tell your “story” throughout the interview. Answer all questions directly and honestly, but highlight your strong points while minimizing or not mentioning your weak points (unless, of course, you’re directly asked about them). If an interviewer doesn’t ask about something and you don’t mention something, no one will know unless you have otherwise listed it on your application. Offering up negative or dubious aspects about yourself is an definite no-no. Keep things positive and try to keep the interview under your control without being too assertive.

Be positive and excited

Be positive and excited about an institution you are truly interested in attending.  Be engaging in your interview and make it clear that you’re happy and want to be there. Making an effort to express this disposition will make you memorable and can make the interviewer more positive and excited to talk to you. Remember, interviews are exchanges: the demeanor you portray will be returned to you by the interviewer.

Relevant thread: Pre-Allo FAQ Series: Interview Survival

Your interviewer is out of your control

You can’t predict what kind of interviewer you’re going to get. If you get a combative, weird, quiet, etc. interviewer, you can’t do anything but try and adapt and make the experience as positive as possible. Stay calm, answer their questions, and be upbeat.

Don’t memorize your answers

While you should be prepared for the most common questions (why this school, why do you want to be a physician, etc.), I wouldn’t rehearse an exact wording of your answers under any circumstances. You’ll risk coming across as stiff, boring, and uncomfortable if you simply recite a memorized answer. Try and remember key ideas but improvise how you’re exactly going to express them – if you’re a decent speaker, your response will sound fresh and unrehearsed.  A great way to do this is by participating in mock interviews.

The end of cycle interview

What does it mean to have an end of cycle interview?  At some institutions, nothing, as they hold slots to accomodate end-of-cycle interviewees.  However, at schools that offer rolling admissions, the later your interview, the fewer the number of available slots.

When I was interviewing, my experience was that an end of the cycle interview didn’t bode well for my chances at that school.  Think about it: if your file was complete in August but you don’t interview until January or February, what does that say? I wouldn’t say that you’re interviewing for the waitlist per se, but if the school really wanted you, you would get that interview invitation quicker than four to six months after you apply.  I’m not sure what else that can possibly say but “we’re interested in you, but not that interested.”

Have questions ready

Make sure you have a question or two ready to ask your interviewer when you get to the “so, do you have any questions for me?” phase of the interview. I used the exact same two or three questions with every interviewer, so if you struggle to come up with specific questions for each school, simply reuse general questions. I’d recommend taking a look at the school’s website the night before your interview to try and come up with some topics for questions. If the tour and/or meet-and-greet is before the interview, pay attention and try and get some questions from those parts of the day. This approach will make you seem very interested and knowledgeable about the school, which can be a big plus.

Be flexible and be yourself

My best piece of advice for interviews is to be flexible and yourself.  Unfortunately there’s not an easy way to change who you are, which will more than anything dictate how you do in interviews. If you’re quiet, nervous, and not personable, you’ll more than likely portray that to some degree, though some people can mask their personalities better than others. That’s who you are, and there’s not much you can do about it. Be as excited as you can about the school, vary your intonation when talking, be enthusiastic (but not overly so) when you speak, and be genuine. You need to be able to handle anything and everything smoothly and turn your interviews into positive experiences no matter what you’re presented with. This isn’t something that can be taught, really – at least not immediately. It’s more reflective of how you interact with people in social situations. Understand that if you’re entirely honest about your interests, motivations, and career goals, you’re most likely not going to get accepted to a few schools. Each school has a particular goal when building a class and it’s highly improbable that you will fit the criteria of every school you apply to. Try not to be disheartened by a few rejections.

Accepted, Waitlisted, or Rejected

If you’re accepted – CONGRATULATIONS! You’re going to be a physician!

If you’re waitlisted, stay in the game – you were granted an interview for a reason and you weren’t rejected outright for a reason. The school is genuinely interested in you, but they can’t accept everyone. If this is a school you really want to go to, send updates, tell the admissions staff/dean that you want to go there, and hope for the best. I have very minimal experience with being on a waitlist because I chose not to play the waitlist game, but I have been following the school-specific threads on the SDN forums I was waitlisted at to see what people are doing once waitlisted and how things are going.

At the Ivies, it seems that sending the admissions office multiple letters of intent and updates is the best way to go. I don’t understand how people can send in 3-4 update letters with meaningful updates over the course of a cycle, but they do, and it seems that those are the people who get in. If you’re waitlisted at one of these schools, get your pen and paper (or computer) ready and start drafting those letters. It’s a game, and if you want to win you have to play it. Other schools don’t subscribe to this philosophy and would prefer not to receive updates or letters of intent. If you’re unsure whether or not the office will accept additions to your file, simply call and ask.

If you’re accepted/waitlisted, make sure you know what financial aid forms are required for your file to be complete and get them in on time. If you’re accepted earlier in the cycle (any time before January), you probably won’t be able to do much other than get all of your information together and come up with a system to keep track of what you have and haven’t turned in. Make sure you know exactly what you need to turn in and when. I missed out on financial aid deadlines at a couple of schools I was interested in because I was careless; had those been my only acceptances, I would’ve been in a very bad situation. While most schools will usually send out an e-mail reminding you to complete the financial aid process, they likely won’t hound you to make sure you turn everything in. That’s your responsibility.

If you know you’re not going to attend a school, do both the admissions staff and other applicants a favor and withdraw as soon as possible. This is a courtesy more than anything else.

If you’re rejected, don’t take it personally. As I said, there are simply too many qualified applicants to admit to any one class. I used to think that sort of phrasing in rejection letters was disingenuous, but when you look at how many people are applying for admission to a class, it’s certainly possible. How many people with 4.0/40+ numbers and outstanding extracurriculars apply to Harvard, Yale, Penn, or Hopkins each year? That cohort alone is probably enough to fill their classes. At every school the situation is similar: unless you’re applying with an extremely extraordinary application, you’re not going to get into every school you apply to because there are simply too many people that would be excellent additions to a class to admit each year. Keep your chin up and move on to the next school.

Making the Decision

If you’re fortunate enough to hold multiple acceptances, you’re going to ultimately have a decision to make. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what factors are most important in choosing a school; that’s going to be an extremely individualized set of criteria, and what’s most important is going to vary from one person to the next. My general piece of advice is to go to Second Look weekends/revisits at every school that you’re seriously considering. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet potential future classmates, talk with current students about questions/concerns you may have about your education, and get another fresh look at the institution. The final decision will probably be, more than anything, a gut feeling. Every program will have its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to you to determine whether you can live with those things or not.

If you’re considering a school that is well known to provide scholarship money and/or merit-based financial aid but you’re concerned about costs, I would strongly recommend letting the admissions office know and asking to speak with either the admissions dean or the director of financial aid. Schools generally want to hold on to their accepted students, and you would be surprised at what they’re willing to do to try and convince you to come to their institution. Don’t expect anything, but asking for an increase in scholarship/financial aid awards isn’t inappropriate as long as it’s done tactfully and humbly.

These are some of the questions that I asked (both to students and myself) when ultimately trying to choose a school. As you attend interviews and start to realize what exactly you want in a medical school you’ll come up with your own questions.

  • How much is it going to cost?
  • During the first two years, do the classes generally foster a collaborative atmosphere?
  • Is the grading true pass/fail or a traditional letter system?
  • How many exams are taken during each course? How many courses do students take at a time?
  • What kinds of research opportunities are available to medical students? Is it possible to take a year off for research?
  • What is the role of the medical student on the team during the clinical years?
  • Did I like the current students, faculty, and administrators that I met? Could I see myself as a member of this institution?
  • Do I like the city/community/area the institution is in?

Again, you will need to define the factors that are most important to you and base your decision on your own preferences. Once you’re accepted, schools will usually bend backwards to get you information or get you in touch with students to address any of your questions or concerns. Take advantage of this resource: in almost every case, students are the best people to get information from since they experience the school from the same perspective you will and can speak to the educational as it currently is, not as it was in the past or how the administration would like it to be.

While there are certainly a lot of factors outside of the applicant’s control throughout the application process, make no mistake: the ultimate results are not “random” or a “crapshoot” as seems to be popularly said. You can put yourself in the best position possible by completing a quality primary application, thoughtfully answering any questions on secondary applications and returning them promptly, and making an enthusiastic, confident, and memorable impression on your interviewers.

If you’re able to do those things – and do them well – your chances at success will be much greater and you will more than likely achieve your goals. The upcoming year will be stressful and induce some serious anxiety, but, at the end of it all, hopefully it will also be filled with unique memories and looked back upon as a time of possibility and excitement.

Best of luck, applicants!

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on June 29, 2011. Edited February 3, 2015.

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.