Avoiding the Cringe Factor: Writing the Great Personal Statement For Medical School Admission

(As those of you applying to medical school know, the personal statement on the AMCAS application is, at least by conventional wisdom, one of the most imporant parts of your application. It doesn’t seem fair when you think about it, that all of your effort to get good grades and to position yourself with extracurricular activities can be undone by a few lines of prose, but that’s just how it is. Here are some general rules that might help you get started.-PB)

You Are Not Applying For A Position In Management

Every generation has its peculiar bureaucratic vernacular. In the nineteen-fifties it was the breezy patter of the Madison Avenue ad men. In the sixties it was vacuous leftist duckspeak. Today it is the stilted jargon of the diversity Mafia with which the timid writer protects himself from the one true sin of diversity, that is, to have an original idea. In fact, if you can’t write a decent-sized page without mentioning “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” “open-mindedness,” or any of the other shibboleths of the ossified Pharisees who protect the academic temple from blasphemy, you’re not trying hard enough to write an interesting personal statement.

Even the bureacrats who will read your essay must tire of yet another anthem to diversity, improving access, or your efforts to bridge the gaps between different peoples. It’s like describing dirt to a farmer. They get it. The modern academic bureaucrat eats, sleeps, and breathes diversity. It’s their religion in whose teachings they derive mindless comfort even though if pressed, they’d have a difficult time explaining why diversity is better than conformity.

You are, in fact, gilding the proverbial lily every time you mention your efforts to enhance diversity or “bring diversity to the table.” Everybody says this. It’s sort of a baseline. Nobody (with the exception of your Uncle Panda) is ever critical of diversity so what is your point going to be except that you wasted a couple paragraphs of your finite allocation of words on the literary equivalent of wall-paper? Completely unoriginal and unnecessary.

You Don’t Have Any Original Ideas

Say! Here’s an idea. Volunteer in the inner-city for a couple of months teaching kids how to read and then crow about it in your personal statement. They’ll never see that one coming and I’m sure you will hold your reader in thrall. The fact is that there is nothing new under the sun. Medical school admission is a highly formalized dance not unlike the compulsaries in Olympic pairs skating. Everybody has the same moves and a certain level of technical skill. That you only taught inner-city children how to read to buff up your application goes without saying. You know it and the person reading your personal statement knows it even though it was a good impulse and no harm came of it. Surely there are worse ways to spend your free time than doing some low-level, ineffectual community service. Do not, however, make a mountain out of a molehill or a religious experience out of handing out clean needles to drug addicts. I know people who were sentenced to the same kind of community service and they never talk about it.

Look at it this way: did volunteering amongst the great unwashed in any way change your decision to apply to medical school? Of course not. You were going to apply before you volunteered and nothing you saw or did dissuaded you. Ergo, volunteering is useless as a predictor of fitness for a medical career. I know it, you know it, and the admission committee knows it. With this in mind, rather than bragging about how you “facilitated this” or “enabled that” why not pick one person or event that either interested or affected you and write about it? And the kicker is to only loosly connect it with your life-long, thought-of-nothing-else-since-first-grade dreams of medicine. In other words, describe but do not use the suffering you witnessed as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement.

It is also not necessary to commit to a life of selfless dedication to the underserved. Talk is cheap and even you must know that where pre-meds become outraged at the plight of the poor, residents become outraged at their own plight, working as they do long hours for little pay in the service of the same poor who take them completely for granted, viewing as the poor are wont to do the complicated logistics of health care delivery with the same indifference as they view water or cable television.

You are a Terrible Writer

Admit it, love it, embrace it. Hell, I’m a terrible writer myself. I regularly abandon wonderful ideas for articles because I don’t have the skill to do them justice. I’m not proud of this but at least I recognize my limitations. Sure, I can sometimes bang out a servicable paragraph or two but I have a blog upon which I have been practicing for the last two years. You however, with the exception of a couple of cut-and-past term papers which weren’t even graded critically on style or grammar, have probably never had to string together even a couple of paragraphs of coherent ideas. There is no shame in this but you have to realize that you are not up to the task of creating something original and beautiful. You need to instead strive for servicability. Just say what you want to say and the more stilted phrases, wandering metaphors, and over-blown rhetoric you can eliminate the better (for you and your reader).

If you aren’t much of a writer, start with a simple subject-predicate sentence structure. “I went to Darfur in my senior year to work at a refugee camp” just sounds bettter than, “To actualize my life-long commitement to serving the underserved, something about which I have been passionate since the third grade, I decided to devote my free time working to facilitate the delivery of basic health care to the refugees in Darfur.” Through which sentence would you rather wade? Both sentences say essentially the same thing but the first assumes that the reader can put two and two together while the second doesn’t trust the reader to wipe his own ass, much less recognize your superior altrusim.

Give the reader some credit. Keep your prose simple, your sentences coherent, and he will follow along until the end when everything will be explained. Flight of ideas, flashbacks, and other literary devices are dangerous weapons in the hands of amateurs and you need to leave them alone unless you have some training in their use. Stick to the basics. State a theme, develop it modestly, and end it. You can go back later and embellish the stupid thing if you can’t resist the urge to put lipstick on a pig.

Avoid humor, by the way, unless you can pull it off which you can’t. You are not funny. You say some funny things occasionally, we all do, but that doesn’t make you a comedian. This doesn’t mean that your style needs to be ponderous but, as we mentioned, you don’t actually have a style per se. Humor is a difficult style and you have to work up to it.

Brevity, Sweet, Sweet Brevity

Be merciful to your reader. Unlike my blog which no one is obliged to read, to faithfully discharge his duties the medical school admission officer must read your entire personal statement, potentially all 5300 hundred characters of it. This is a lot of reading especially if the writer is a hack. I have read quite a few personal statements and I sometimes have to make a couple of attempts at them, not only to get clear of the sticky morass of stilted language and ponderous prose but also to appreciate the vastness of the writer’s accomplishments in his short, 24-year-old life. Good Lord. I am regularly amazed that I got into medical school because I have done absolutely nothing in life of any use to anybody. Compared to the typical medical school applicant, my life has been a vast wasteland of watching television, playing frisbee with my dog, and other activities that do nothing but prove my unfitness for a medical career.

Give it a rest. Few of us are interesting enough to fill a paragraph with our accomplishments let alone a whole page unless it were to relate every little thing we ever did in some mad paroxysm of achievement inflation. You can leave some things out. Pick one or two things about which you are justifiably proud and write about them. Once again, give your reader some credit. You are either a bona fide saint or a shameless opportunist but packing your personal statement with a catalogue of everything you did to polish you credientials since high school will neither expose nor conceal this.

You don’t have to use all of your alloted characters either. Use succinct paragraphs (with a decent space between them) and consider making your personal statement short. While I wrote the typical cringe-inducing AMCAS personal statement, when I re-applied for the Emergency Medicine match my ERAS personal statement was two brief paragraphs for a total of about 500 characters. Maybe I didn’t get an interview or two because of it but I still have my self-respect.

20 thoughts on “Avoiding the Cringe Factor: Writing the Great Personal Statement For Medical School Admission

  1. brilliant. and, better still, i actually managed to hit just about all of your highlights in my PS.

    if it makes you feel better about playing frisbee with your dog, i talked about coaching middle school ultimate frisbee as the first paragraph of my PS. therefore, i also am unfit to be a physician. may it happen anyway!

  2. I’m proud to say I never mentioned diversity anywhere in my personal statement, nor in my secondary essays. Despite this, I still managed to get an acceptance. Presumably the adcom, overjoyed at reading an essay that didn’t talk about inclusiveness, used the last of his strength to slam an “accepted” stamp on my application before slumping to the floor and curling up into a defensive fetal position against the pre-med onslaught.

    I have to say, in the last two years of pre-med work since I decided to switch careers into medicine, I’ve been surrounded by more neuroticism, self-centeredness, competitiveness, and outright nastiness than in any other environment I’ve experienced. Even in the military, where black humor and cynicism are raised to an art form, there was never this sort of madness. These premeds have open contempt for the the volunteer activities they perform purely for application purposes. They seem incapable of actually giving a damn about anything except getting into med school; in-between nasty posts on SDN telling others that they don’t possibly have a chance of acceptance, they perform dark rituals of GPA calculations, MCAT speculations, and peer-judgment. Balanced on a tightrope of arrogance, they try to dance their way across their personal abyss of fear and self-loathing for the applause of their peers and the approval of the adcoms. It terrifies me that many of these people will be accepted.

    Wow, I didn’t realize how angry I was. Sorry for venting on your board, Uncle Panda! At this rate, I’ll be blogging in med school…

  3. Are you implying that I am the only pre-med who helped the poor only because I wished to help, and not to pad up my application?

    What is this world coming to?

    (Just kidding, I did it for the same reasons as everyone else).

  4. I find the idea of doing volunteer working the silliest part of applying to med school. They know we only do it because they make us. We know that feeding mashed peas to cripples isnt going to make us better doctors. The entire process is like a big game where the med schools see just how far they can make us jump

  5. Off topic, but oh well:

    Did you name your dog after the asteroid or the Greek Goddess?


    (The Greek Goddess.  My other four dogs are Hector, Zoe, Daphne, and Penelope. -PB)

  6. Dr. Bear,

    I understand your perspective, and quite frankly I would prefer it, but will admission officers label such a statement you described as unimpressive? If so, why would you want to lower your chances of acceptance?


    (Good writing with sound ideas elegantly presented in a simple, concise style will almost always win out over bureaucratic tripe.  The admission officer would have to be an extreme cretin to prefer the usual bilge to something well-written. -PB)

  7. I am a student member of an adcom at a prestigious medical school (I sound like a tool just typing that, sorry.) After reading hundreds of personal statements, I just want to rant a little about BY FAR the most over-used and formulaic essay out there. No joke, 60% of the ones I read follow the same pattern:

    It starts with some sort of impetus to think about medicine when you are young. Usually it is a family member that is sick or dies (I can’t help but think we are raising a generation of doctors that have all have Trisomy 21 siblings). Then each and every check mark on your application somehow furthers your commitment to med school. Your research made you love science more, your African baby saving made you love helping people, your shadowing experience made you love the hospital, all that time spent on your tough term paper made you realize you can persevere any academic challenge. Then a summary about how you are now fully self-realized and that medicine is no doubt the path for you.

    If that sounds like your personal statement, for the love of Panda, change it now.

    PS: That essay also has the drawback of easily leading to the dreaded “did not answer why they want to be a doctor” comment from your application reader. We all know that your sick uncle when you were 8 did not alter your life that much. You need more meat than that.

  8. Jaguar, I appreciate your thoughts. However, it leads me to ask…what exactly are you expecting? The vast majority of applicants don’t have some epiphany and pursue medicine.

    Can you eleborate on your point and give any specific advice about how to write the personal statement?

  9. Let me clarify: Many people have an experience that helps them realize that medicine is the career from them, however, the reasons are usually the same old stuff.

  10. LizzyM?

    Panda, don’t you think this post deserves a direct link to the PS you have posted on your blog, just in case anybody new is reading???

  11. I concur with Jaguar. What I find more amusing is when the dates and all add up to the fact that the grandmother who was so influential in the applicant’s decision to pursue a career in medicin died when the applicant was 2.

    I am bemused by the applicants who are inspired by an accident or illness, “I could do nothing to help” so I decided to become a doctor “so that this will never happen again”. What’s next? fire fighters school?

  12. “It’s like describing dirt to a farmer.”

    I laughed pretty hard at the one. Perfect comparison. I’ll definitely cite this blog post on SDN whenever I get the chance.

  13. Dr. Bear,

    The posts in these last two months have been so awesome. Don’t get me wrong here, I will revel in any type of post you blog, but could you be so kind as to tell us stories from the ER like the good ol’ days.

    An avid reader and struggling pre-med looking for inspiration even though all I need to do is study,


  14. What is wrong with looking for med students that have some experience with service work? Most of my classmates are sheltered rich kids that have no idea how real (i.e. middle class or below) people live.

  15. Why make us jump through hoops at all? Maybe they(med schools) just like to see how many hoops one is willing to jump through, and how high we will jump. I think also it forces us to volunteer at places like an ER so they end up getting free help. I think that the application process should be reduced to this:

    1. Grades
    2. MCAT
    3. Interview
    4. Shadowing

    No need for personal statements, no need for pointless volunteering. You’d either be in or out, simple as that.


    (I assure you that the hospital does not need the help, especially of the low-level kind offered by most volunteers.  That’s why we like to offer our volunteers the opportunity to shadow us so they can at least do something more than fetch pillows for patients.-PB)

  16. Auron–I agree with you, I do not expect people to have a new or different reason why they want to be a doctor. I am sure everyone has some experience that solidified their idea of becoming a physician. My main point was the style of presentation needs to be different from what I presented above if you want to differentiate yourself from the herd. Another point is that I just don’t buy the idea that anyone’s career choice is affected by their shadowing or their bake sale for sick kids. I know those are just the fiery hoops we make you just through, nothing more. If, by chance, on activity actually affected your decision, make sure you give the event the space it deserves instead of giving it the same weight as your time fetching emesis basins in the ER.

    Beyond that, the best essays are the ones that are insightful. The authors that can identify what it is in themselves (a particular emotional makeup, a certain world view that is complementary to medicine, etc.) that makes them want to become a doctor and makes them compatible with the medical field produce the best personal statements. It is probably cliche, but make sure your personal statement allows the adcom to see who you are. A rehash of your extracurriculars and a sick uncle is usually not enough to get you a step up on the other applicants. (although it probably won’t kill your chances outright either)

  17. After two years of being brief and stating my true motivations for medicine I decided instead to go all out on the exact drivel you are condemning. On my third year applying I had 4 acceptances….but you’re right, my self-respect went out the window a long time ago!

    Some highlights:
    -I opened with a “shocking” quote
    -Went into a story of poor childhood
    -Talked about fighting for equal rights for African blacks
    -Came back to my story where I mentioned poor access to healthcare
    -Droned on about service, a commitment to “holistic” medicine
    -Mentioned research so I’d have a shot at research schools
    -Brushed over clinical EC’s in one sentence to make them appear more numerous
    -And closed with a nice “from rags, to not too much better than rags but grateful” line
    -Oh yeah; here and there I threw in “no doubt about medicine” and “commitment greater than ever” and “deepest possible conviction.”

    Yikes! On a potentially redeeming note- I think my essay does cover everything Jaguar mentioned above. World view, emotional makeup, and introspection were all covered pretty well, while my XYZ answer to “Why Medicine?” was not explicitly stated, but rather implied.

  18. Wow,Jaguar, you are asking for the same ambiguous question. I can;t count the time I’ve been told “tell us about yourself”.

    I am not deluded enough to claim to think I am anywhere near a decent writer, forget being able to personify myself and focus on a few significant events in a few concise lines.

    I did it though. even though it is written adn i am happy wiht it, i seriously doubt that any adcom liked it. It had few frills and mentioned nothing of “adversity” or “diversity”. I can’t even say it elaborate why i wanted to go into medicine, Only that i do.
    To top it off i insinuated that the day-to-day life of research is boring.

    I don’t know if th P.S. is my downfall or saving grace.(after and interview) I have been put on the waiting list for the only school i want to goto.

    It is not ivy league but rural oriented. Frankly practicing in a big city makes me cringe and so does the though of a cut-throat premed and med people.

    Awsome post Dr. Bear. Thanks for looking out for us premed kiddies.

  19. “I have to say, in the last two years of pre-med work since I decided to switch careers into medicine, I’ve been surrounded by more neuroticism, self-centeredness, competitiveness, and outright nastiness than in any other environment I’ve experienced.”

    Thank you for articulating this. I’ve been working as a nurse’s assistant in Germany for 3 months now, where healthcare is free and doctors aren’t rich. I don’t know exactly what state-of-the art procedures the U.S. offers that they don’t have, but I think the care is better because people aren’t motivated by $$$. I’m not looking forward to returning to the “pre-med” lifestyle in the U.S., but I guess at least I’m not one of those people…

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