Crafting a Medical School Personal Statement that Stands Out

Crafting a Medical School Personal Statement that Stands Out

Posted on May 30, 2024

A medical school personal statement is a core part of the application process. But if writing isn’t your forte, it can feel like a daunting task. We collected advice from Virginia med school recruiters on how to write effective med school personal statements, including a step-by-step breakdown of the writing process and more.

Use our writing guide to learn:

• Medical School Personal Statement Tips

• How to Make Your Personal Statement Stand Out

• What to Avoid When Writing a Personal Statement

Searching for top medical schools to apply to? Use On Board Virginia’s resources to map out the best medical schools in Virginia!

What Are Medical Schools Looking For in Your Personal Statement?

Unlike your transcript and application, your medical school personal statement is an opportunity to showcase your personality and contextualize your achievements. In other words, medical school recruiters are looking for who you are, why you want to become a physician (as opposed to other healthcare careers), and what your motivations are.

Your goal isn’t to restate your transcript or resume in an essay. Rather, you’re communicating why you’re a strong candidate to become a Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.

Some logistical guidelines:

• Medical school personal statements should not exceed 5,300 characters, or about 1.5 pages single-spaced.

• Your AMCAS medical school personal statement stays the same for all schools you apply to.

• You should tailor your secondary application and personal statements to specific medical schools.

Medical School Personal Statement Tips

1. Start With a Prompt

The AMCAS application prompt is: Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school. The prompt is purposefully vague, allowing applicants to tell diverse stories. However, that can feel overwhelming for those unsure of which direction to take.

Use these prompts to get started before narrowing down your core message:

• What person or event inspired you to become interested in medicine?

• How does your socioeconomic background shape your view on medicine?

• Describe a challenge you faced growing up and how you overcame it. How does that inform your interest in medicine?

• What values do you live by, and how does that translate into a good doctor?

• What makes a good doctor, and how do your strengths align with those traits?

• How do your passions outside of medicine inform your view of medicine?

When selecting a prompt to guide your medical school personal statement, look for questions you can answer authentically while showcasing your talent or passion for medicine.

Just remember to stick to the task at hand. Your goals are to explain why you want to attend medical school and what makes you a good candidate, not simply to tell a story.

2. Build an Outline to Organize Your Thoughts

An outline helps structure your essay by mapping your main points and the overarching logical flow. Organize each section and paragraph around a topic sentence (yes, a full sentence) so you can understand your main points at a glance. This ensures that every paragraph has a purpose, reducing irrelevant content.

The two most common personal statement outlines are the basic outline (five-paragraph) and the narrative essay outlines.

The basic outline follows a five-paragraph essay structure that builds toward a thesis. Start with an introduction and thesis statement, followed by three paragraphs that offer examples to support the thesis. Then, end with a conclusion summarizing your points and exploring the larger implications. Writers can adapt this structure to fit a wide range of topics by dividing topics into sub-paragraphs.

You can adapt a narrative into an essay format using the narrative essay outline, which is often some version of the Hero’s Journey. In its simplest form, the hero’s journey shows how the hero (you) overcomes challenges to mature. It’s a narrative-driven outline structure that focuses on guiding the reader through a personal journey rather than starting with a thesis.

Writers often use the narrative essay outline to challenge misconceptions and show growth as they form new perspectives.

3. Focus on Your Message, Not the Fluff

Whether you craft a narrative or take a thesis-based approach, it’s easy to introduce irrelevant details or clutter your writing with flowery language.

Ask yourself: How does this paragraph, sentence, or word contribute to my overall message? Better yet, can I remove the sentence without substantially changing the overall meaning of the section? Effective writing is simple and gets to the point.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

Statements are more impactful when you support them with specific examples. For example, if you say you’re a critical thinker with a heart of gold, can you describe a time when you used your critical thinking and empathy to resolve an obstacle? If you believe volunteering makes you a better candidate, how has your volunteer experience contributed to your clinical experiences or perspective on medicine?

Supporting your claims with evidence helps the reader understand your thought process and builds credibility.

As always, remember to contextualize your accomplishments to your main points. It can be tempting to rehash your transcript or resume in your medical school personal statement, but that doesn’t explain your motivations nor highlight how that experience informs your view on medicine.

5. Use Transitions to Build a Logical Flow

Transition phrases and sentences help the reader jump from one idea to another without losing sight of the main point. Use transitions to introduce new ideas, show the reader how an idea builds toward a topic, and provide stepping stones for your logical flow.

Transitions can also add some much-needed sentence variety to your paragraphs, making your personal statement easier to read.

Here are some transition phrases to help you get started:

New ideas – also, in addition, similarly

Contrast – however, although, in contrast, despite, while

Sequence – first, second, third

Causation – as a result, because, therefore

Example – for example, in this instance

6. Dedicate Time to Revise

After writing your medical school personal statement, take the time to revise your work. Edit your statement in at least two passes. The first focuses on ideas and logical flow, which may require rewriting. The second focuses on grammatical, formatting, and logistical errors.

Follow these tips to revise your statement:

Wait Before Editing – Give yourself time to switch mindsets between writing and editing. The break allows you to come back to your statement with fresh eyes.

Read Your Statement Out Loud – You can catch most grammatical and rhythm issues by reading your statement aloud. Reading also helps you identify grammatically correct sentences that are too long, wordy phrases that don’t fit tonally, and repetitive sentence structures.

Color Code – If you’re unsure about the logical flow of a section, assign a color to each topic before highlighting the passage accordingly. Then, reorganize the section so that each paragraph or group of sentences focuses on one color. This is a great way to notice if you’re jumping back and forth between ideas and pinpoint areas that need transitions.

Get Another Perspective – Ask others to read your personal statement and gauge their reactions. If possible, look for readers with experience in the medical field since they understand what traits are valuable in a clinical context.

How to Make Your Personal Statement Stand Out

An effective personal statement for medical school applications conveys why you want to become a doctor, first and foremost. Beyond that, your personal statement should reflect you authentically, not copy examples online. Your story might not adapt well to someone else’s format. How can you tell your story in a way that makes sense for you?

Use our tips to structure your personal essay while exploring prompts and creating an outline.

1. Find Your Emotional Core

A personal statement is ineffective if no one cares about it. Your job is to make the reader feel invested in your story. That could mean building a connection through a relatable moment, an emotionally charged story, insights into someone who inspires you, or a revelation that helps the reader view a topic in a new light.

Most importantly, ask yourself: Why do I care?

If you don’t care about a topic, the reader won’t. The answers to these questions are different ways of conveying what motivates you.

Once you’ve identified your emotional core, incorporate it into your statement by contextualizing why it’s important. Avoid including an emotional scene like a traumatic event without sharing how it relates to your overall message—otherwise, it could be seen as emotionally cheap or cliché.

2. Talk About Your Values

Your values are central to who you are and act as guidelines for your behaviors and viewpoints. Organize your essay around a core belief, giving examples of how you embody that belief across different areas of your life. Or, choose three values that an ideal doctor has and how you strive to emulate them in your own life.

Don’t be afraid to draw inspiration from all parts of your life.

Applicants often try to stick to medical-related values or stories without realizing their perspective can come from other areas such as volunteer work, hobbies, and sports. Just remember to show how your values inform your drive to become a doctor.

3. Show a transformation

Demonstrating change is powerful. Not only does change imply a willingness to grow beyond your limits, but it also shows humility in acknowledging how a past notion may have hindered you and how you’ve adapted.

Try opening your medical school personal statement with a common misconception about the medical field that you or the public has. Then, use the rest of the essay to walk through key moments that challenged your perception and allowed you to grow.

You can also challenge misconceptions about yourself to paint a more multidimensional picture. How would your peers describe you, and does that match your viewpoint? How might a stranger characterize you? What do they not see?

4. Craft a Narrative

Listicles often feature story-based medical school personal statement examples because they’re emotionally compelling and unique. Applicants tell personal stories when they’re trying to make the reader feel a certain way or guide the reader through a transformative experience. Their confessional nature can also feel authentic. Some applicants have paralleled their journey to culturally relevant literary works to amplify their identity.

Of course, you don’t have to make your full essay a narrative to be effective. Try opening your statement with a personal anecdote before switching to a basic outline for the rest.

What to Avoid When Writing a Personal Statement

When browsing medical school personal statement examples, you may see a pattern that skews towards certain formats or narrative tropes. And, in emulating them, you start to get lost in the writing process and lose sight of the purpose of the statement. Avoid these mistakes when writing.

1. Using AI to Write Your Personal Statement

AI programs like ChatGPT can help you get started on a personal statement by suggesting prompts or checking your grammar. But they often produce generic content that is syntactically correct yet incomprehensible.

On top of that, using AI to write your personal statement defeats the purpose of the exercise, which is to gauge how well you can articulate your motivations and see if your experiences make you a good fit for medical school. Medical schools that catch you using AI to write your statement may be more inclined to reject the application.

2. Fluffy Language

Fluffy language refers to word choices that don’t contribute to the overall message. They may shift the personal statement’s tone to be too casual or elevated. And they often hide a lack of substance. If you can rewrite a sentence to be simpler, do so. Add additional adjectives, adverbs, and details if they build toward your message.

3. Getting lost in the narrative

There’s a fine line between crafting a story that emphasizes key points on why you want to become a doctor versus flowery prose that focuses too much on the language. Treat your narrative as an organizational structure, not as the final product. Avoid adding unnecessary details that detract from your overarching message.

4. Using Too Many References, Metaphors, and Similes

Cultural references and metaphors can help readers understand a concept in a different, often sentimental way. However, too many metaphors can muddy your message, especially when different metaphors refer to the same subject. Refrain from using multiple references to keep your message clear.

Start Writing Your Medical School Personal Statement!

By planning your medical school personal statement before writing, you’ll be well on your way toward an organized and poignant essay. Remember to set aside time to edit your work and solicit feedback from experienced eyes!

Curious about other medical fields? On Board Virginia is a comprehensive resource hub for healthcare careers in Virginia. Browse our content to learn more!