Powerful Personal Statements: Part 2 - The 5-Course Meal

The Resume Rehash.  Admissions officers have read this type of essay all the time.  It happens so often that it’s one of the biggest personal statement cliches.  The way it goes is something like this: the applicant says why medicine but feels she needs to cram every single activity since she turned 18 into the 5300 characters.  She touches upon so many experiences that she doesn’t take the time to elaborate well on any of them.

The problem with this essay is not just that it will fail to make you stand out; it displays a stunning lack of perspective on what goes into the rest of the application.  

Your personal statement does not stand alone.  For good or for bad, the medical school application process includes not only a Primary Application, but also a Secondary Application, and an interview.  Think of it as a multi-course dinner at a nice restaurant:  there’s so much that goes into the experience beyond just the entree.

For the purposes of our metaphor, let’s say that medical schools are a picky customer going to eat at a fine restaurant, and you are the maître d'.  Below is the restaurant experience for a typical med school application:

  • The facade of the restaurant (before you even get in the door):  background information.  Med schools ask for a bunch of personal information that you may not even realize: how educated your parents are, how much money your family makes, how you paid for college, and the ages of your siblings.  Some med schools even ask for SAT and ACT scores (to see how good of a test-taker you are)!  They have already formed an impression of you (perhaps you’re a bit spoiled?) before they even get to a word you’ve written.
  • The menu: the work/activities section, which is a list of up to 15 things that you’ve done.  This includes: extracurriculars, work experience, volunteering, shadowing, research, publications, leadership positions, conferences attended, etc.  You get up to 700 characters (that’s about 6-7 sentences) to describe what you’ve done.  Most applicants have about 8-10 things to put on the section, but it’s about quality not quantity.  This is your chance to mention everything you’ve done and let you save your personal statement for only the things that have mattered the most in your decision to become a doctor.
  • The soup: your Most Meaningful Essays.  As part of the work/activities section, you will be offered the chance to mark three of your activities as your “Most Meaningful.”  Then, you get an extra 1325 characters for each of these activities to write about why these activities have transformed you and the personal growth you’ve seen through each.  While there should be overlap between these essays and your personal statement, this is your chance to highlight some of the qualities that you don’t have space to write about in your personal statement.  Perhaps you want to emphasize your leadership?  The most meaningful essays are probably the best place to do that.
  • The appetizer: your letters of recommendation.  Some schools will read these before your personal statement; some after.  Regardless of the timing, the appetizer and the entree work in tandem: they both must portray a similar picture of the applicant.  The strengths you mention in your essay should be similar to the ones mentioned by your letter writers, who hopefully know you well enough to tell vivid stories about you that the admissions committee has not yet heard.
  • The main course: your personal statement.  Like a restaurant customer, your application reader already has experienced what you have to offer before getting to your personal statement.  And if the experience so far has been poor, he may drop a $20 on the table, get up and leave.  Most likely, though, he will have liked some of your offerings but will be reserving judgment for the main course about whether it puts the meal over the top.  Note that while this does indeed put pressure on your personal statement, it should give you the freedom to write only about why you want to be a doctor without worrying too much about cramming everything into your essay.
  • The side dish:  Secondary Applications.  Unlike the Primary, which is universal to all MD schools (except Texas, because Texas likes to be different), secondary applications vary by school.  Typical questions involve why you want to go to that school, how you envision your medical career, and what you’ve learned from your various activities.  
  • The dessert: Interviews.  At this point, the meal has gone pretty well: med schools will only order dessert if they have already enjoyed the meal.  You don’t really have any writing here, but you will need to tell the same stories about yourself that you’ve told in previous essays.

You might have a picky customer, and when one thing goes wrong with the meal, they get mad and write you a bad review.  But that’s why you have more than one customer (we recommend 25 med schools to help cover your bases). 

Even though you may have a few picky customers, most are willing to overlook a blemish or two; just be sure to make every part of your application excellent and don’t overly focus on the personal statement.  After all, it’s just one dish.