Personal Statements - Essays
Overview ~ Brainstorming ~ Writing ~ Editing ~ Additional Information
- Grammatical rules
- Sought Characteristics
- Sample Personal Statements (for medical school)
- Sample Personal Statements (for podiatric and optometric school)
OverviewPersonal Statement: Sometimes referred to as the “statement of purpose” or “personal essay,” is your opportunity to state who you are, where you come from, what you are passionate about, how you ended up at your current career choice, and where you want to go in the future. You must tell the reader why you are pursuing a career in _________ and what you are passionate about.
Essays: Many health schools also have secondary/supplementary applications on top of the general application you fill out. These secondary applications usually include specific long-answer essays. Many of the pointers on this page will apply not only to the personal essay, but to the long-answer essays you will find on these secondary applications.
What do Admissions Committee Members Look for in the Statement?
Admissions Committee members, when they read your personal statement, will be looking mainly at style and content. Remember, they will read countless applications and essays in a short time and, as a result, many of the admissions readers will skim personal statements. Consequently, you need to be concise in what you say and not repeat yourself throughout the essay. You should try to use key words and action verbs throughout your statement. Also, you should try to capture the reader’s attention by describing any out-of-the-ordinary or interesting experiences you have had, provide insight and original thought based on what you learned, and tell your personal story. Caution: Do not over-criticize the profession.
If you can, try to incorporate warmth and feeling into your essay so that the reader is able to tell that you are a compassionate, caring person. Remember, this is a statement about you: therefore it is okay to use the word “I” and to keep the focus on you. Do not provide so much detail that YOU get lost in the essay. The essay should also show your sense of humanity so that admissions officers see you as someone who would be valuable not only to the medical profession, but to their institution as well. Think of writing this essay as if you were writing a newspaper article in the sense that you want to answer the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of you and your journey into medicine.
Brainstorming Think about what kind of information you want the admissions committee to know about you that is not fully described elsewhere in the application. There may be some overlap with information in the application, but it will be presented in a different way.
The following are some ideas that might help you get started in brainstorming/writing your personal statement:
- What is your first recollection about medicine? What was your reaction to it? Or, what was your first experience dealing with some serious health-related dilemma (a parent diagnosed with cancer, etc.)?
- Who do you know who is in medicine? What do you like, respect, admire about that person?
- Why do you want to be a physician? Why not something else?
- Who is your role model and why? What have you learned from this person?
- What is the most memorable experience you had in the medical profession?
- I’m the dean of the school—why should I let you in?
- What are two things about you that make you different from anyone else you know?
- When did you discover your interest in the medical field?
- Why are you interested in medicine?
- What academic strengths do you possess? For example: above-average grades, leadership roles in specific courses, teaching assistant/lab assistant experience, tutoring.
- Are there some extraordinary circumstances that may need to be discussed? For example: your grades suffered in a particular semester/year because of a demanding work schedule, illness, or family problems. Before you venture down these roads please speak to your advisor or a professor as we may be able to address these issues more safely in our letter.
- What honors/awards have you received? For example: scholarships, awards bestowed by an organization of which you are a member, recognition for work in the community, the dean’s list, honors.
- What research activities have you participated in? For example: research assistant, slide prep, data entry/analysis, and survey development/administration.
- What extracurricular activities have you participated in? For example: membership/office in a campus organization, membership/office in a professional/ community organization.
- What volunteer experience do you have?
- What relevant work experience do you have?
- What specific areas of interest do you have within the health field?
- Why will you make a strong addition to this program? What strengths do you bring with you?
- What are your career goals once you complete your education?
- Have you had meaningful life experiences: jobs, travel, Peace Corps., that would make you stand out from the rest?
**Make a list of all the information you want the admissions committee to have about you. Organize the items on your list into groups of ideas that seem to fit together naturally.
WritingRead the question carefully. Many times applicants have their own agenda and forget to focus on the question asked of them. After you are finished writing an answer, reflect on your question and make sure you have answered it fully.
Write when you write and edit when you edit! Your first draft should be straight from the heart, brutally honest, and inclusive of all the information you think will be useful to the admissions committee; you can edit later.
Do not just write what you think they want to read. If you do this, it will sound too contrived and give the impression that all you want to do is impress them, not express yourself and who you are.
Speak from your heart; trying to convey an honest representation of who you are is the best policy. You can’t fabricate a person who does not exist, nor is this the type of person they would want to admit to their institution!
A personal statement should be a reflection of your personality. By reading your personal statement the admissions committee should be able to develop a better understanding of you. An effective essay lets the reader know you would be an interesting person to interview and potentially a valuable addition to the institution. They may also go to your personal statement when reviewing your application to get an overall sense of you as an applicant. Be sure it functions as the “glue” that brings all aspects of your application together into a cohesive application.
Consider the readers of your application. Admissions committees are made up of persons who are proud to be associated with the profession, and are the gatekeepers of the profession. Do not overly criticize them, their professions, or the health industry. If you feel like you must point out some flaw you have discovered in your journey and that flaw is perhaps why you want to join the profession, make this statement in a way that makes it sound more like an inspiration or motivation and not a criticism or critique of the profession or health system. Also keep in mind that non-science minded people may read your essay. Avoid being too technical and scientifically-wordy when writing about YOU.
No whining and no excuses—do not write a laundry list of personal problems. The essay should be upbeat, illustrating how you have turned adversity to strength and/or pain/sorrow into motivation. An explanation is always better than an excuse and owning up to your own contribution to academic problems is a better way to go than blaming someone else or not taking ownership of what you did to contribute to a problem. Avoid the unusual, at least in the presentation of your essay. A personal statement in the form of a ceramic yucca or haiku is not a good idea.
Be specific and provide details. Your details and experiences are what make your personal statement unique and will impress the reader. Document your conclusions with examples and do not make general, far-reaching statements.
Do not laundry list your accomplishments and experiences without addressing how those experiences helped you determine your career objective or helped you to better understand yourself and your role as a potential healthcare provider. Otherwise, your list will not only be similar to your resume and what your evaluators write about you, but it will also make you appear egotistical. Everything in your personal statement should have a reason for being included. Formulate conclusions that reflect the meaningfulness of your experiences.
Be prepared to write several drafts and get an early start. Waiting until the last minute is never a good idea and will give you a personal statement which might be good, but could definitely be better and more refined. After you have written your statement, set it aside for at least a day or two and then revisit it. When you read it again, you may be in a different frame of mind and will be ready to revise.
Organize your ideas logically. Many personal statements are organized chronologically. Other statements are organized by topic (e.g. history, academic background, experience, and community service) or by theme or thesis (e.g. what will make a good healthcare professional in the year 2010 and how/why you would be that person). Whatever style you choose, it is imperative that you provide the reader with some reference points so that s/he does not have to spend time sorting out your information.
Set the proper tone. Remember that this is your chance for them to know you more personally and you should take full advantage of this opportunity. Try to avoid the use of clichés, slang and/or sentences or phrases that give a conversational or chatty tone to your essay. Remember: you are writing for professionals, so be professional in your choice of words and sentence structure.
EditingVary your sentence structure from time to time to keep your reader interested. What works is variety: controlling the rhythm of passages through the mixing of short, long and intermediate-length sentences.
Do not try to be clever or humorous unless you are absolutely certain you can pull it off with finesse. An application to medical school is serious business and an admissions reader is not going to want to admit someone who does not seem serious about medicine. Keep it professional.
Use the active voice. Put the spotlight on you rather than on someone or something else. (Weak: I was employed by the hospital to assist… Better: I assisted in the examination of…)
Watch for sentence fragments, run-on sentences, dangling phrases or ideas, and the occasional random tangents.
Use action-packed, descriptive verbs and be careful not to switch tenses. Avoid ending sentences with a preposition (e.g. with, of).
Do not be unnecessarily wordy. (Weak: After the course was finished, I was sure that I wanted to spend my entire life in daily contact with the world of medicine.
Better: That course convinced me my future was in medicine.)
Make sure your statement is organized and avoid redundancy. If it is too long or rambling, it will appear undisciplined, out of focus, and unrefined.
When using acronyms, give the entire name when it first appears followed by the acronym in parentheses.
Have several people review your draft—friends, family, faculty, and staff. They may know some things that you omitted, and may be more objective and give you an honest opinion of how you are coming across.
This is an exercise in perfection. Poor grammar, spelling, punctuation, and incomplete sentences are not acceptable under any circumstances and will weaken your application.
Additional InformationGrammatical Rules
Sample Personal Statements (Medical School)
Sample Personal Statements (Podiatric/Optometric School)
Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)
Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:
- Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
- Think of events or situations that highlight these qualities
Then, you should write about one of these events or situations in a way that demonstrates these qualities and captures the reader’s attention.
1. List Your Greatest Qualities
To answer the personal statement prompt more easily, focus again on the question of what you want admissions committees to know about you beyond your numbers and achievements.
I’m not talking about your hobbies (e.g., “I followed Taylor Swift to every concert she performed in the US during this past year”), although you could certainly point to aspects of your lifestyle in your essay to make your point.
Instead, I’m talking about which of your qualities–character, personality traits, attitudes–you want to demonstrate. Examples include:
- Extraordinary compassion
- Willingness to learn
- Great listening skills
- And so on
If you have difficulty thinking of your great qualities (many students do), ask family members or close friends what you’re good at and why they like you; that will take care of things :)
Finally, choose the two or three qualities that you want to focus on in your personal statement. Let’s use compassion and knowledge-seeking as the foundational qualities of an original example for this article.
(Note: I cannot overstate how important it is to think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your personal statement before choosing a situation or event to write about. Students who decide on an event or situation first usually struggle to fit in their qualities within the confines of their story. On the other hand, students who choose the qualities they want to convey first are easily able to demonstrate them because the event or situation they settle on naturally highlights these qualities.)
2. When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?
Now that I’m off my soapbox and you’ve chosen qualities to highlight, it’s time to list any event(s) or setting(s) where you’ve demonstrated them.
I should explicitly mention that this event or setting doesn't need to come from a clinical (e.g., shadowing a physician, interacting with a young adult patient at a cancer center, working with children in an international clinic) or research experience (e.g., making a finding in cancer research), although it’s OK if it involves an extracurricular activity directly related to medicine.
In fact, since most students start their essays by describing clinical or research experiences, starting off with something else–travel (e.g., a camping trip in Yellowstone), volunteering (e.g., building homes in New Orleans), family (e.g., spending time with and learning from your elderly and ill grandmother back home in New Hampshire), work (e.g., helping out at your parents’ donut shop)–will make you immediately stand out.
Let’s start with the example of building homes in New Orleans. Why? Because we could easily demonstrate compassion and knowledge-seeking through this experience. Notice how the qualities we select can choose the story for us?
3. Describe Your Event as a Story
Here’s where the art of writing a great personal statement really comes in.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays, most of which are very cliché or dry. Therefore, it’s critical that you stand out by engaging the reader from the very beginning.
By far the best way to capture admissions officers early is by developing a story at the start of your essay about the event or situation you chose in Step 2.
In a previous article, I wrote about the three critical elements for writing a great admissions essay story: 1) a compelling character, 2) a relatable plot, and 3) authenticity)
However, I want to go one step beyond that article and provide an actual example of how the same event can be written in a routine vs. compelling way. That way, you can avoid the common pitfalls of typical personal statements and write a standout one.
One of my most eye-opening experiences came when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans during the summer months of 2014. Up to that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.
New Orleans was hot and humid during the summer months of 2014–no surprise there. However, for a native Oregonian like me, waking up to 90-degree and 85% humidity days initially seemed like too much to bear. That was until I reflected on the fact that my temporary discomfort was minute in contrast to the destruction of communities and emotional pounding experienced by the people of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people was as much about lifting spirits as making physical improvements.
Many people may feel the Routine example is pretty good. Upon closer look, however, it seems that:
- The focus is as much on New Orleanians as the applicant
- The story is not particularly relatable (unless the reader had also volunteered there)
- There isn’t much support for the writer actually being touched by the people there
On the other hand, the Compelling example:
- Keeps the spotlight on the applicant throughout (e.g., references being from Oregon, discusses her reflections, interacting with Jermaine)
- Has a relatable plot (e.g., temporary discomfort, changing perspectives)
- Is authentic (e.g., provides an example of how she lifted spirits)
(You can find yet another example of a typical vs. standout admissions essay introduction to engage readers in this earlier post.)
4. Demonstrate Your Qualities
(Note: This section applies to all aspects of your essay.)
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given for writing personal statements, but further guidance or examples are rarely provided to demonstrate what it looks like when done well.
This is unfortunate because the best way to understand how standout personal statements demonstrate qualities through an engaging story is by reading two examples of the same situation: one that “tells” about a quality, and another that “shows” a quality.
Let’s take a look at the last sentence of each story example I provided in the previous section to better understand this distinction.
Telling (from Routine story)
“…it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.”
Showing (from Compelling story)
“…actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people…”
Notice how the second example demonstrates compassion without ever mentioning the word "compassion" (hence no bolded words)?
Moreover, the same sentence demonstrates knowledge-seeking: “Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals...”)
That’s what you’re going for.
Think about it. Who do you consider to be more kind:
- A person who says, “I’m really nice!”; or
- A person who you've seen do nice things for others?
Clearly, the second person will be seen as more kind, even if there's no difference between their levels of kindness.
Therefore, by demonstrating your qualities, you will look better to admissions committees, and also seem more authentic.