How to write a great personal statement for medical school

First off, how important is the personal statement?

It is certainly an important part of the application process. If you are a highly competitive applicant with a great GPA and MCAT, however a mediocre or sub-par essay, it could sink your application at many top institutions. A great essay can also be the difference maker between acceptance and rejection for those students that are at the tipping point between these two decisions among an admissions committee.

One thing to keep in mind is that medical schools receive THOUSANDS of applications for a very limited number of spots, and many allopathic medical schools have an acceptance rate of 5% or less. Within those thousands of applications, at least half of applicants all check the boxes regarding GPA and MCAT scores and are highly qualified. How do schools differentiate between such applicants? By assessing your passion and genuine interest in medicine through your activities, your letters of recommendation, and your ability to explain your desire to go to medical school through the personal statement.

What are the question prompts for the TMDSAS and the AMCAS applications?

For TMDSAS, you will need to be able to address the following essay prompts:

  1. Personal Statement Prompt (Essay Limit of 5,000 characters): Explain your motivation to seek a career in medicine. Be sure to include the value of your experiences that prepare you to be a physician.
  2. Personal Characteristics Essay (2,500 character limit): Learning from others is enhanced in educational settings that include individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Please describe your personal characteristics (backgrounds, talents, sklils etc.) or experiences that would add to the educational experience of others.
  3. Options Essay (2,500 character limit): The optional essay is an opportunity to provide the admissions committee with a broader picture of who you are as an applicant. This essay is optional; however, you are strongly encouraged to take advantage of this opportunity.

Briefly state any unique circumstances or life experiences that are relevant to your application. This is not an area to continue your essay or reiterate what you have previously stated – this area is provided to address any issues which have not previously been addressed.

For the AMCAS application, you will be required to address the following:

  1. Personal Comments Essay (5,300 character limit): Consider and write your personal Comments Essay Carefully; many admissions committees place significant weight on the essay. Here are some questions that you may want to consider while writing the essay:
    • Why have you selected the field of medicine?
    • What motivates you to learn more about medicine>
    • What do you want medical schools to know about you that has not been disclosed in other sections of the application?

In addition, you may wish to include:

  • Unique hardships, challenges, or obstacles that may have influenced your educational pursuits
  • Comments on significant fluctuations in your academic records that are not explained elsewhere in your application.

What are some tips before starting?

Firstly, if you are submitting a TMDSAS application, the optional essay is not truly optional. The words strongly encouraged should make this obvious, but there are still applicants every year that forego this opportunity and this is a huge mistake. Choosing not to write the optional essay demonstrates to some programs that you are not willing to put the time and effort into showing them everything you can as an applicant and to put the effort forward toward the application process. Make sure to do each of the three essays, have multiple people you trust read over and edit them, and perform multiple rounds of edits to ensure it is grammatically correct, free of errors, transitions well, and brings home your central points in the statement.

Whether you are writing TMDSAS personal statements or AMCAS essays, make sure to start in word and use spellcheck, and only bring over everything once you have your final drafts completely written and polished for submission. This avoids making errors in different systems that are not as easily caught.

For both application systems, the personal statement must answer the following fundamental questions: Why do you want to apply to medical school, and why are you an applicant that will contribute to the medical field? You need to illustrate the reasons and passion behind your decision to apply, and you also need to show why you are a great fit for the field and their school. If your essay does not address these two central points, it has failed right from the start.

A common error is to list many experiences in the hopes that one or two will hit home with a reader. This is also a mistake, as your essay will begin to read like a resume and collection of things you have accomplished. When in doubt, always return to the two main points described above and make sure you are answering the following fundamental questions: Have you explained why you want to go into medicine, and why are you a great candidate for the field?

How should I structure my essay?

Every personal statement should have a strong opening that grabs the readers attention, a middle portion that describes your passions and ideas and further substantiates your interests with examples, and a closing that brings the entire arc and essence of your statement to a satisfying end to complete your essay.

As an important note that is not to be overlooked – the application interface may provide you with a box for your essay submission but we would strongly encourage first drafting and finalizing your essays in a Microsoft Word document or word processor before transferring this to the application system prior to submission.

What should my opening look like?

It goes without saying that many admissions readers are pouring through dozens and sometimes hundreds of essays in an application cycle. With this in mind, a strong opening to grab and keep the reader’s attention past one or two sentences is of paramount importance.

Importantly, you do not need to force yourself to write the most incredible thought-provoking first sentence that has ever been written in a personal statement. This can lead to over-thinking and even cause writer’s block when trying to start by obsessing over this beginning.

Instead, focus on the main message that you want to convey in each paragraph and how this will fit into the bigger picture and flow of your essay. Knowing the path and structure you wish to forge in the end can help you pick a starting point for the beginning.

Appropriate places to start are with a personal experience regarding something that you said or did in a moment or time, something that was said or done to you, an event that you witnessed, and can even simply start with a thought or an opinion on a topic. In this first paragraph, it is important to lay the groundwork for the passion, idea, or journey that you are going to describe for the reader going forward.

How do I structure and fill out my middle?

The middle portion of your essay is critical because it gives you the space to delve into the important experiences or ideas that have informed who you are and what drives you.

Here, it is important to note that your essay should NOT read like a resume or C.V. and simply become a list of accomplishments that are listed in a sequence of events. The committee will already have these experiences in other sections of the application, and the goal should not be to try to list as many as possible.

Instead, pick the one or two major experiences that you find most meaningful in your life to discuss. These experiences should answer the central questions to the committee for why you chose to go into medicine, and why you are a good fit for the field. They should demonstrate the qualities that you will possess as a future physician, which include excellent work ethic, compassion for others, and ability to lead and work with others in a team atmosphere.   

Whether it is a personal experience, family member, or an encounter with a patient, think back to the moments where you found medicine most meaningful in your life that led you to pick it as a career. When discussing these encounters, and any experiences that follow, use detail to show the reader exactly why this experience was so meaningful to you. As you go further into your essay, you should also make sure to describe the qualities that you exhibited along your path to applying to medical school that will make you an excellent physician in the future.

What do I close with?

Just as opening the essay can be difficult in attempting to artfully capture the reader’s attention, closing can be equally as difficult in trying to wrap everything up neatly while bringing your points to a close.

First off, if your story follows an arc that starts with your opening of an experience or an encounter, it can be helpful to start the first sentence of the last paragraph by bringing the reader back to this original point so that they come full circle. It also gives the impression that you have connected the entire essay throughout. It is not necessary to do this and not all essays will be amenable to this depending on the story arc, but it is a tool that can be used in certain situations.

Do not simply summarize each paragraph of the essay in a sentence at the end, but instead take this opportunity to bring the reader to the realization of why such experiences have made you a stronger, more well-versed, and passionate candidate.

Final Thoughts

While thinking of a topic can be difficult and the process itself can be stressful, there are several resources you can use to help you on your way to getting your application ready.

Avoid some of the common pitfalls listed above, plan out the structure of your essay before diving in, and go through multiple drafts to create a final product with a strong opening, descriptive middle, and convincing closing.

Going through multiple drafts, and having others view your work and provide edits, is critical to gaining another perspective on how your essay may be viewed by admissions committees. It can be helpful at a surface level to avoid typos, repetitive words you may have not noticed, and catch when transitions between paragraphs are not working well. More critically, it can allow you to deduce whether your main message is coming through in a meaningful way to others apart from yourself.

Frequently asked questions

What are my odds of getting into medical school?

That depends entirely on a number of factors, including your overall GPA, science GPA, MCAT score, letters of recommendation, experiences, personal statement, and secondary application in addition to other factors. The average GPA and MCAT score for accepted students in 2021-2022 was an overall GPA of 3.74, science GPA of 3.67, and mean MCAT score of 511.9.

How important is the medical school personal statement?

Since medical schools can receive thousands of applications for very few spots, and many of these applicants all have average or above average GPA and MCAT scores, the personal statement can become and important differentiator.

How important are medical school secondary essays?

Extremely important. In fact, many medical schools will weigh this even more heavily than the general application personal statement, because they personally chose the prompt and want to hear why you are a great fit specifically for their medical school.

Should I go through multiple drafts of my essays?

Absolutely. You should have multiple people review your essays for grammar and spelling errors, transition quality, and overall message. The most polished essays that are application-ready have usually been through at least 2 or 3 revisions prior to submission.

When should I start my medical school application?

You should start it well before May 1st, with plans to submit your application as soon as you are able to in the beginning of June in the application cycle. Due to rolling admissions, it is a significant advantage to apply early before spots are beginning to fill up. This means that you should also notify your mentors for letters of recommendation before these dates to give them ample time for submission.

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