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Medical School Personal Statement Writing Guide

What Do "They" Look For?

The great challenge of the medical school application essay is how to discuss common themes in a fresh way. Later sections of this guide will provide you with tips on how to make your essay stand out, but for now we will outline the key qualities and abilities that the excellent essays demonstrate.

As we will stress throughout, the essay is meant to convey the personal characteristics that the rest of your application cannot communicate. So we will preface our list with a warning about what not to include: anything that is fully covered by another part of the application. For example, do not tell the reader your GPA or name the awards that you won in college. Avoid simply listing your extracurricular activities. If you bring any of these issues up, you should have some significant insight to add that is not evident from another part of your application.


Believe it or not, admissions officers rank sincerity highest in importance, above any quality seemingly more specific to medicine. Ultimately, they just want to know who you are, and in that sense, the best way to sell yourself is to be yourself. Don't focus too heavily on what you think they want to see at the expense of conveying your own message in your unique way.

My own feeling is that the essay has been more a cause of people getting downgraded than being favorably judged, usually because it is too contrived or patently insincere. As an admissions committee member, after you've gone through thirty or forty such applications in an afternoon, you're so grateful for somebody who just says something simply and straightforwardly. - College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University

Sincerity is important to stress because it's hard for most of us to achieve, despite its apparent simplicity. The pressures and anxieties of the situation have locked us into a mindset that prevents us from writing honestly. Further, because we are not used to writing about ourselves and being so close to the subject, it can be difficult for us to assess the sincerity of our own writing. Thousands of students every year will read this same advice, whether in a guidebook or even in the application instructions themselves, and yet they just cannot put it into practice. If you can be one of the few who truly understand what it means to be sincere, then you will already have separated yourself from the pack in one crucial way.

You might question how a reader who doesn't know you can judge your statement's sincerity. The basis for judgment usually lies in the context your reader has developed from reading hundreds or thousands of other essays. Assessing your essay against others is one essential way that EssayEdge can offer a more critical eye than your friends, relatives, or teachers, who have not accumulated expertise specific to the personal statement. Moreover, our perspective in reading your essay is just as objective as your application reader's perspective will be.

Writing Ability

As with sincerity, you must focus on demonstrating solid writing ability before you even start worrying about the specific issues you will tackle.

I think the important thing is for the essay to be a reflection of the student and demonstrate good written communication skills. - Harvard Medical School

The reasons for this emphasis on good writing are evident enough. First is the important role that written communication skills will play throughout your career, as they do in most other professions. Second, a well-written essay makes its points clearly and forcefully, thus strengthening whatever content you include.

Good writing means more than the ability to construct grammatically correct sentences. You also must create a coherent structure and ensure proper flow as the piece progresses. Because the process of developing ideas and putting them down on paper is so intimate and personal, all writers end up needing editors to assess the effectiveness of their product. You should consult people whose writing you respect for advice or even more hands-on help. Trained specifically in the nuances of admissions essay writing, EssayEdge editors are the best equipped to provide assistance in this crucial area.

Motivation and Commitment

While there are some admissions officers who will insist that you can write about anything as long as it's revealing, a safer bet would address the fundamental question: "Why medicine?"

You do look for motivation because the Personal Comments [section] is the only place the applicants have to indicate this. In other words, why are they interested in medicine? I don't think there's anything else specifically that we look for, other than whatever the applicant wants to tell about himself or herself. - UCLA School of Medicine

An effective explanation of your motivation actually accomplishes two purposes. First, it shows the reader that you have thought your goals through and have significant, worthy intentions behind them. Second, in the process of detailing your motivation, you can illuminate your most significant values and qualities.

If you discuss motivation as a more abstract element of your interest in medicine, your discussion of commitment should provide the hard evidence. For example, if you use compassion as a reason for your decision to pursue medicine, you should be able to offer concrete evidence of how you have exercised compassion in specific instances.

Specific Personal Qualities

Doctors must have the ability to work with patients as well as other medical professionals, particularly because the stakes are so high and go far beyond his or her own personal success. The reason you should make certain personal qualities your focus is that they provide balance to the academic abilities you demonstrate in objective measures like the MCAT.

Many applicants make a mistake by discussing their intellectual capabilities as a major factor in being a good candidate for medicine. The applicant is reviewed at other levels in terms of his or her capability, so this should not be the focus of the personal statement. - School of Medicine, University of Washington

You should not try to include everything from the following list, because it would be difficult to treat each one in sufficient depth. Moreover, the goal should be to illustrate your qualities through concrete details, instead of merely writing them as a list. We will go into this lesson in more depth elsewhere in the course, but it's a lesson worth reiterating: Show your qualities through concrete evidence.

I tend to be put off by too many self-congratulatory statements, such as, "I'm an excellent candidate for medical school; I have great compassion"-that kind of thing. One person wrote, "As part of my personality, I radiate a high degree of warmth and sincerity," and that was not good. - College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University

Here are some of the qualities that make good physicians, but again, you should not treat them as buzzwords. Invoke them only if you have the evidence to back up your claims. We have grouped them roughly by the specific medical duties with which they are related:

Treating patients: compassion, empathy, sensitivity, integrity, communication skills.

Solving problems: creativity, initiative, independence, curiosity, critical thinking skills.

General: perseverance, dedication, maturity, honesty, sincerity, motivation, energy, diversity.

This applicant describes a specific problem he has observed in the hospital where he volunteered:

But I also saw many ways [the American health-care system] can be improved. For example, uninsured homeless and immigrant people would often come in, complaining of problems they had been having for a long time. Although we would treat these people as best we could, a health-care system that intervenes in such sicknesses earlier would have minimized costs associated with treating diseases in their later stages.

By discussing his ideas about a specific problem, the applicant demonstrates his ability to think critically and independently. He does not even need to cite these qualities explicitly, because he has conveyed them through concrete details.

Personal Details

Personal details are the means by which you should to demonstrate your strengths in the preceding list of qualities. Always aim for specific, personal statements rather than grand generalizations.

One very common mistake is to write a statement that is too generic-that speaks about what the ideal physician should do or be, rather than what the applicant wants to do or feels he or she should be as a physician. One has to bring it down to a personal level. - The Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago

Avoiding generalizations applies not only to your field but to yourself as well - hence our emphasis here on personal details. Not only are details more interesting to read than hackneyed generalities, but they also provide a concrete basis that helps your reader grasp your insights.

This applicant demonstrates perseverance and dedication through very concrete examples. Note how his introduction effectively sets up the obstacle: that he was "denied the possibility of admission to medical school because of his religion." The rest of the essay goes on to describe specific sacrifices he made, so we can see him in active pursuit of his career.

Because the essay relies on showing rather than telling, the applicant never has to make the clich?d statement, "I learned the value of hard work." His detailed writing stays close to his personal situation and therefore makes a much more powerful point than any abstract generalization could.

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